Your Safety, Their Punch Line

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

We've encountered everything, including the kitchen sink, inside our bags: frozen rats, live crabs clawing their way out of newspaper wrapping, live and dead chickens plopped whole into suitcases, rotten food and stinking cheese, vibrating dildos, crystal chandeliers, engine parts, televisions. Passengers have called screeners every name from nigger to sorry-ass bitch to ten-dollar-an-hour motherfucker. So maybe we can be forgiven for some of the attitude that might crop up.

I'm less familiar with passenger checkpoint operations since I work in baggage, but the talk is the same from both sides of the metal detectors. Checkpoint screeners may be better supervised (or more closely watched) because they have more contact with the public, but so many supervisors and managers are either incompetent or literally in bed with their favorite screeners that the same situations always arise throughout MIA.

The story of the overweight undercover inspector who scared the screeners at one checkpoint is still repeated, each time in more graphic detail. The latest version I've heard has the inspector -- one of the testers periodically sent down from the General Accounting Office in Washington -- getting through the checkpoint with a gun deposited inside a body cavity (earlier and probably more accurate accounts had the gun positioned between her legs, very near her crotch).

The Heads of State
The Heads of State

If passengers going through checkpoints set off the walk-through metal detector, they'll usually be subjected to "wanding" with a hand-held metal detector. This routine is unpleasant for passengers but can be worse for shy or lazy screeners who are loath to follow orders, which are to probe assertively intimate areas where contraband and arms are most likely to be stashed. That's what happened when the overweight inspector was wanded, cleared, and then revealed her true mission. The way the tale ends: "They just didn't get the wand up high enough because her legs were so fat." The reluctant screener had to attend retraining classes.

Knowing how assiduously many TSA screeners avoid working at all, it's safe to assume other dangerous items have passed onto planes undetected. The fat lady incident is only a symptom of the morale-sapping (and security-compromising) virus that by now has infected every TSA screening station at the airport.

One screener describes her checkpoint: "There's a group who's always standing around talking or going on breaks whenever it's their time to [do certain tasks]. So a few screeners end up doing everything. Whenever we complain to supervisors, they say, öOh yeah, I'll have to talk to him or her.' But then nothing changes. Shit, big surprise -- the worst ones are the favorites of the supervisors and managers. Nobody complains anymore -- we just have to accept it."

I've heard some screeners boast of purposely making mistakes on tasks they hate so they'll be taken off those jobs. Instead of ordering them to shape up, their superiors generally let them go back to standing around. A few months ago at one of our periodic Town Hall meetings, I was surprised to hear an offhand remark by FSD Richard Thomas (who must be praised for holding Town Hall meetings in the first place, even though everyone is too scared to tell him anything of substance). Thomas said Washington had authorized him to hire additional screeners but that he really needs to fill even more positions -- "to take into account the sick and the lazy."

Because TSA employees have been warned not to speak to the news media -- locally some screeners have been fired for responding to a TV reporter's questions -- I'm not using my real name or the real names of most TSA employees mentioned in this story. I've left out or changed revealing personal and work-related details. I've also left out anything the government has termed "SSI," or Sensitive Security Information.

The only screener whose name I haven't changed is Theo Karantsalis. He appeared in Joan Fleischman's column in the Miami Herald when he sued the TSA earlier this year; he's also been the subject of unrelated articles in New Times and in MS Focus magazine. His bosses at the TSA don't know what to do with him, though he's being pushed out, step by step, because he's way off the chain. But many screeners believe Karantsalis has done us, and TSA, a favor by nipping at the heels of our secretive, punitive management.

Karantsalis, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who now is a TSA checkpoint supervisor, was one of about two dozen Miami employees flown to Washington, D.C., a year ago for a lavish awards banquet to celebrate TSA's second birthday. The agency spent almost half a million dollars on food, decorations, awards plaques, and lodging for 600 honored employees and family members from across the nation.

Beaming in his uniform, Karantsalis was photographed with his award at the banquet. This snapshot appeared in two Miami newspapers. Within two months, he was a pariah at TSA. Karantsalis had been reporting to work at 4:30 a.m. but asked his bosses to permit him to start his shift three hours later. Because of vision problems related to multiple sclerosis (from which he suffers but doesn't appear to), he can't drive a car and had been having trouble bicycling to the airport in the early-morning darkness, when bus service is virtually nonexistent.

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