- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The Transportation Security Administration plans to hire 150 new security screeners at the Washington area’s three major airports as it adjusts its staff nationwide.

The agency opened centers this week at hotels near each of the airports to assess applicants for the part-time jobs.

The hiring campaign follows a TSA review in May of its nationwide staff of screeners.

“All three area airports were considered understaffed,” said Deirdre O’Sullivan, TSA spokeswoman.

Nationally, 650 new screeners are being added to the 45,000-person staff.

The agency led members of the news media on a tour of its assessment center at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington yesterday, in part as a response to concerns in Congress last year that unqualified screeners were being hired.

The same day, a Senate committee heard testimony from congressional investigators, who said the government has spent billions of dollars to improve security at commercial airports but does not adequately analyze how well the system is working.

The testimony from the General Accounting Office follows recent embarrassing security breaches at airports.

In September, weaknesses in cargo security were exposed when a shipping clerk packed himself in a box and was flown undetected halfway across the country.

Last month it was revealed that a college student had hidden box cutters, bleach and other banned items aboard two Southwest Airlines planes. The items were concealed for five weeks before being discovered.

TSA officials believe their tests on applicants ensure screeners are capable of doing their jobs.

“We have human performance standards for everybody who comes through,” Miss O’Sullivan said.

Applicants interviewed by the TSA yesterday were subjected to tests of their physical strength, their eyesight, their ability to recognize objects by touch alone and of their personalities. They also were photographed and fingerprinted for FBI background checks.

The tests were developed with the help of Elizabeth Kolmstetter, an industrial psychologist hired as a consultant.

“I was brought in to make sure this whole process met the standards that Congress mandated,” Miss Kolmstetter said.

The second phase of testing demonstrated yesterday follows a written test of English skills and personality traits.

“We do a personality assessment to make sure people have the personal and customer-service skills,” Miss Kolmstetter said.

Screeners who get hired must undergo 40 hours of classroom training followed by 60 hours of on-the-job training.

Before the TSA took over airport screening throughout 2002, airlines hired private security firms to do the screening. Many of the screeners earned only slightly more than minimum wage and had limited English skills. Turnover rates at some airports were running at 100 percent per year.

Now, turnover is 13 percent per year nationally and full-time screeners get average annual salaries of $27,000.

Pat Hynes, federal security director for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, said turnover is only 5 percent at the airport. Opportunities for advancement so close to the federal government appear to be an attraction that helps retention, he said.

“There is a certain acknowledgment they like about being at the nation’s capital’s airport,” Mr. Hynes said.

The airport staff screens 7 million passengers and about 15 million checked or carry-on bags per year, he said. Each day the TSA uses “vulnerability probes” in which confederates try to sneak fake weapons or other contraband past screeners to test whether they are doing their jobs.

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