TSA Failed to Train Airport Screeners

A congressional report released Monday criticized the Transportation Security Administration for failing to come up with a standard to measure the quality of its airport screeners and for not providing them the training they were promised.

The Government Accountability Office said that it may not be possible for screeners to detect 100 percent of dangerous items that airline passengers try to bring onto planes. But the TSA needs to set a standard for the screeners so it can focus on where to improve, the GAO report said.

TSA screeners’ ability to find guns, weapons and other dangerous items since the Sept. 11 attacks has been an ongoing concern.

“Weaknesses and vulnerabilities continue to exist in passenger and checked baggage screening systems at airports of all sizes, at airports with federal screeners and at airports with private-sector screeners,” the report said.

The GAO urged the agency to set standards for how many threat objects a screener finds when undercover agents try to slip them through the checkpoints.

“Without performance targets for covert testing, TSA will not have identified a desired level of performance related to screener detection of threat objects,” the report said.

The TSA, in responding to the GAO, said that it has created broad performance indexes for airports, such as the percent of screeners who pass annual tests and how many passengers they screen. The TSA said it will have set individual performance standards by October.

Screeners are required by law to receive 40 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of on-the-job training before they can check passengers or bags on their own. The GAO acknowledged that TSA has been trying to upgrade training and improve screener performance.

TSA policy now requires screeners to receive three hours of refresher training per week, on average.

The TSA’s federal security directors, who are in charge of airport security, say that it’s been difficult to give the screeners refresher training because most of it is delivered over the Internet. As of October, only 109 airports out of 450 had high-speed access, leaving 45 percent of TSA’s work force unconnected to the agency’s online training, the report said.

TSA said in a statement that it has asked Congress for $174 million for high-speed internet connectivity so more airports have access to its online learning center.

Another obstacle to the refresher training is understaffing. Federal security directors for half of the 263 airports surveyed by the GAO said there wasn’t enough time for screeners to receive recurrent training within regular work hours. Of those, two-thirds blamed staffing shortages.

A classified version of the report _ and a separate report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general _ went further in their negative assessments of the screeners than those available to the public, according to members of Congress who were briefed.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said the GAO report showed private screeners perform better than public screeners. Several senior Democratic congressmen said both performed poorly.

TSA, in a statement, said the reports “observed consistent performance in the two groups.”

The agency said that significant improvements in screener performance will only be possible with the introduction of new technology.

“That said, we will continue to seek incremental gains in the performance for both private and federal screeners through training, testing and management practices,” TSA said.


On the Net:

Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov

© 2005 The Associated Press