Your Safety, Their Punch Line

I once thought working for the Transportation Security Administration was serious business. I didn't have a clue

During the TSA's first hectic year, a couple of private firms won bids to conduct most of the recruiting and training. Highly paid contractors were sent to various cities to live for weeks at a time in luxury hotels. The people who trained my class of some 500 were very smart but had no idea what it might be like to do the job. Some contractors later told Congress and the media they were given the answers to the tests that would certify them to instruct TSA employees. In some cases, they said, they weren't even trained on the machines they were teaching TSA employees to use. I have no problem believing that. The multiple-choice tests we had to take in order to pass our courses were laughably easy, and the teachers told us (in so many words) both the questions and the answers beforehand.

The TSA honchos in Washington say one top priority is improving screener training. This year hundreds of millions of dollars have been budgeted for that purpose. We now must complete a series of online "courses" that consist mostly of reading materials. But at MIA, when it comes to real-life training on the agency's collection of million-dollar explosives-detection machines, suddenly we're back in cronyland. Our bosses tell us with straight faces that training opportunities are based on seniority. Every day, though, I see evidence that this is untrue. It's difficult to know just what the vaunted opportunities are based on, other than managers' whims. If one of your immediate superiors likes you and you're good at flirting (when appropriate), it's an enormous advantage and can mean even more valuable protection against reprimands for not doing your job. (Avoiding work takes up most of the energy left over from the elaborate sexual games and mating rituals.)

The Heads of State
The Heads of State

TSA's baggage-inspection routine varies by airport. At MIA some x-ray machines have been installed in the ground-level ramp areas, where planes are loaded with luggage and cargo, while others have been placed among the baggage-claim carousels. Luggage routed to those sites, usually for connecting flights, is inspected out of sight of travelers. It's a different procedure upstairs in the concourses, where I'm usually assigned. Several work areas, or pods, are set up near airline ticket counters. Most of these include x-ray machines. After checking in, passengers or skycaps bring checked bags to be screened in the nearest TSA pod. Usually the passengers stand outside the roped-off pod and watch as their bags are inspected.

In baggage pods, our task is to make sure checked luggage doesn't contain explosives. When we started, we were told our job was to find things that could explode or ignite. If we found illegal drugs or other contraband, sure, we would want to report it, but that wasn't our job. Now, we were recently told, we'll receive cash bonuses from $250 to around $1000 if we find contraband. This was after a screener found about two tablespoons of marijuana in a bag, resulting in the arrest of the passenger.

When it created TSA, Congress also decreed that 100 percent of checked baggage on passenger flights must be inspected either by x-ray or manually. Anywhere from 500 to 2000 bags per day pass through my pod alone. At any time we may have five to twenty screeners on duty.

If the x-ray machine sees something containing material that might have explosive or combustible properties, we must find that item and determine whether it's safe to fly. Checkpoint x-ray machines for carryon luggage are programmed to look for dangerous objects, such as guns and knives, in addition to explosives. Every once in a while, something on the x-ray screen will look dangerous and -- if it's not a test object or image we regularly receive to keep us alert -- may prompt evacuation of a concourse. Large-scale evacuations caused by dangerous items getting through checkpoints, or because of screeners' fear that a dangerous item might have gotten through, have occurred several times since I've been at MIA. Calling them evacuations, however, doesn't mean they were orderly. The worst incident I've heard about -- it happened on a different shift -- was a mess by all accounts. After an x-ray revealed a suspicious object, TSA management ordered the evacuation of the concourse. While passengers were haphazardly herded into areas the TSA hoped were safe, some screeners in the vicinity literally ran from the airport and went home; many more just milled about aimlessly for the rest of their shift. Other than being told not to abandon our posts and go home, we haven't received any instructions in how to handle the next emergency.

Inspecting baggage can be an ordeal of the damned. In most work areas the bag must be lifted onto a table, which has resulted in large numbers of workers' compensation claims in Miami. The TSA has the highest rate of workers' comp claims of any federal agency, and MIA has the highest rate within TSA. Yet we've never been sent to some room for twenty minutes or so to watch demonstrations of proper lifting techniques. We get to watch a tape after we're injured, but not before.

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