Professional Screeners Hired to Improve Airport Security
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINTGON, Nov. 18, 2002 Starting Nov. 19, all of the nation's 429 commercial airports will be staffed and secured by professional screeners, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge announced today.
"More than 44,000 dedicated men and women have been hired, trained and deployed to screen passengers and ensure the safety of our skies," Ridge said during a press conference with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at Reagan National Airport. "Each has received more than 100 hours of classroom and on-the-job training for this important responsibility."
Airlines are critical, vital arteries of America's global economy, Ridge said. "The Wright brothers would be astonished to learn that 8 million flights, nearly 600 million passengers and $12 billion in freight go through U.S. airports annually."
By hiring professional screeners, the Transportation Department has met the one-year deadline set by President Bush when he signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on Nov. 19, 2001. Mineta created the Transportation Security Administration, a new agency that began work in January with about a dozen employees.
"At the time of the signing," Mineta recalled, "America was still suffering from a widespread fear of flying. A half mile from here, burnt walls at the Pentagon were a visible reminder of 9-11. At airports throughout the country, long lines of nervous Americans watched as screeners, ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the new wartime reality, struggled to check passengers. National Guard troops patrolled our airports, and the press and the public wondered if adequate security could ever be restored."
Mineta said the Transportation Security Administration assumed command of the aviation security system and set a clear goal to achieve world-class security and world-class customer service. "Failure regarding either one would be failure, period," he said.
The agency received over 1.4 million applications for some 53,000 screening positions. Over 314,000 people went through the assessment center review, with 117,000 successfully completing a battery of tests and interviews for background screening requirements.
"We did most of the rollout in a very short period of time," Mineta said. "In fact, 90 percent of the screener hiring has occurred since July of this year, at a pace of over 3,300 people per week."
Ridge said Mineta's team not only beat the deadline, but also beat expectations. "I remember watching the television and listening to the talking heads and reading all the journalists and all the opinion leaders who said, 'There's no way, Mr. Secretary, you can possibly meet this deadline; no way.' Well, we are here today to prove that they were wrong."
Pride in this achievement, he noted however, must be tempered by the fact that "terrorism is a permanent threat and the nation's airports are an enduring vulnerability."
"We have seen the lengths terrorists will go to penetrate airport security," Ridge said. "They are just as determined to destroy innocent lives as we are determined to protect them.
"And make no mistake," he continued, "we must be ever vigilant because they will try again. That is why we must now take the next historic step in securing our homeland."
Ridge called on the Senate to create the Department of Homeland Security proposed by President Bush. The House passed a new version of the Homeland Security bill by a vote of 299 to 121 on Nov. 13. The department is designed to unite homeland security responsibilities under one department.
"Having one department will make it easier for us to build partnerships with state and local government and with the private sector, including the aviation industry," Ridge said. "This is absolutely critical if we are to find solutions to our most pressing security challenges."
The new agency would also look for ways to improve service as it seeks to improve security, he added.
"In time, I suspect we will employ 21st century technology, biometrics, smart cards and other forms of positive identification, as well as even more sophisticated explosive detection systems," Ridge said.
In the meantime, officials will rely on the training, instincts and experience of the 44,000 men and women who now work at the Transportation Security Agency "to make sure that on a day-to-day basis, we use good old-fashioned common-sense at every gate at every airport around this country," he concluded.
Mineta said the Transportation Security Administration's next big statutory goal is to deliver advance technology and people to do 100 percent baggage screening by Dec. 31. By then, he said, "we will have the permanent bag-screening solution in place at over 400 airports, and we are working furiously to refine construction, hiring and training details."
As of this week, he added, the agency will have delivered support for 100 percent baggage screening at almost half of the nation's 429 commercial airports.
"At about 100 airports," Mineta said, "we have already met the Dec. 31 deadline; TSA is screening all bags, all flights, every day."