Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Federal officials said the decision to allow scissors and tools on airplanes is aimed to reduce the workload of a shrinking staff of screeners, many of whom plan to become armed federal air marshals.

The pool of 55,000 airport screeners has dwindled to 43,000 since the federal government took control of private screening in November 2003, said one Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official.

“They took another 2,000 head-count cut; even if they maintain the numbers, they fall behind because the passenger numbers increase and the screeners decrease,” said a TSA official. “The only choice is to reduce the amount of work they are doing and possibly attract more screeners by using the Federal Air Marshal Service as a career path.”

Scissors with a four-inch cutting blade and screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers smaller than seven inches are now permitted in carry-on luggage.

“It’s not about scissors, it’s about bombs,” Edmund Hawley, TSA chief told a Senate committee on Dec. 12. “Sorting through thousands of bags a day at two or three minutes apiece to sort out small scissors and tools does not help security. It hurts it.”

The plan to set aside a certain percentage of available air marshal positions for former screeners has angered some in the elite service, almost all of whom come from a law-enforcement background.

A number of air marshals said the morale is so low in the agency that many of them are leaving for the border patrol, which received a shot of congressional funding to hire 1,700 new agents this year.

“I’m not going to work with a rookie screener,” said one air marshal who has applied for another government job.

“There is no way to train a rookie in this job, and there is no backup at 30,000 feet. It’s going to get people killed,” the marshal said.

A second air marshal said the Dec. 7 shooting in Miami of an American Airlines passenger who claimed he had a bomb underscores the law-enforcement expertise needed to do the job.

“Most guys have at least five years of law-enforcement experience. It’s not just being accurate with a pistol, but knowing how to deal with individual situations such as the Miami incident, and it takes a seasoned law-enforcement officer to know how to react in those situations,” the second marshal said.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. This job is not an entry-level law-enforcement position,” he said. “Hundreds, including myself, have applied to go to border patrol.”

“I think they could fish out of a deeper pond to get air marshals rather than going to screeners,” said one former air marshal.

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