New agency has giant task of making air travel safe

Huge department is first in decades created from scratch

`24-7, backbreaking effort'

March 16, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Magaw and three dozen colleagues toil around the clock and largely in secret these days in makeshift offices at L'Enfant Plaza making decisions that will affect travel for every U.S. air passenger. By year's end, their creation - the new Transportation Security Administration - will balloon larger than the Departments of Education, State, and Housing and Urban Development combined.

Even by Washington standards, the agency is a behemoth made all the more remarkable by the pressure-cooker deadlines driving it forward. Its task has been compared to building all of Walt Disney World in six months. Or repairing a highly complex engine. While it's running.

Not since World War II has Washington attempted to create an agency from scratch. Even then, the work was stretched over years.

Magaw, a former director of the Secret Service who was appointed to head the TSA in December, must have it fully operating by Dec. 31.

That means taking a fragmented screening process run privately until a month ago and devising a comprehensive new nationwide air-security operation, equipping it with sophisticated technology, and hiring and training 28,000 security people, 12,000 explosive-detection machine operators, thousands of air marshals and hundreds of airport security directors.

"In all candor, if you sat through some of the meetings and we [listed] all the what ifs, you'd probably say, `Oh my God, can we ever achieve this?'" Inspector General Kenneth Mead told a congressional committee recently after sitting in on planning sessions. "You should know it's a 24-7, backbreaking effort."

The challenge is to build a tight security net while keeping travelers moving quickly to their flights. The heavy lifting lies ahead, Mead said.

"The notion that you would stand up a 40,000-employee agency almost overnight is just unheard of," said Paul White, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution. "You'd almost have to go back to the founding of the Postal Service, which predated the Constitution, to find a precedent."

If that isn't enough, Magaw intends to upend the typical model of federal bureaucracy. Instead of a 30- or 40-layer hierarchy, he envisions "five degrees of separation." That, he says, means avoiding "regional bosses and bureaucratic bloat" by building no more than five levels of management between himself and any employee.

"They have an opportunity here to design an agency that is a prototype for government agencies of the future," White said. "Most agencies would give their eye teeth for the chance to rebuild from scratch."

To meet the goals, the agency is relying on experts from the private sector.

An executive from Disney World is helping devise crowd-control measures to keep airport lines moving.

Because Magaw's people want consistency at each of the nation's 429 commercial airports, they have turned to an expert from Marriott Corp., known for uniform standards among its hotels.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a vice president from Fluor Corp., a project engineering firm, is testing new ideas for security checkpoints.

And behind the scenes, scores of "go teams," including temporary staff from the Federal Aviation Administration, are working out details as complicated as purchasing hundreds of million-dollar explosive-detection machines, and as simple as equipping checkpoints with chairs and shoehorns for those whose footwear must be removed and screened.

"This is more complex than people can imagine," said TSA spokesman Jim Mitchell. "It's a lot of long hours and a lot of weekends, and nobody's beefing about it and nobody's bragging about it. We know it has to be solved."

White, of Brookings, is watching closely and says the agency's challenge will be to go beyond "raw" security activities.

"The current work force is extraordinarily capable of ferreting out people with nail clippers," he said. "What we really want to know is how vulnerable are airports for somebody who wants to get by with plastic explosives in their shoe."

To that end, he said, the group is developing precise measures to assess airports. "They want to know at the end of each day what happened at each concourse at each airport in the U.S.," he said. "And that's very powerful information."

Given the dimensions and importance of the task, and the Department of Transportation's zero-tolerance policy for security breaches, Magaw has emerged with extraordinary freedom in decision making.

"If we approach this like we do with our normal bureaucracy, my God, we would never get anything done," said Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who heads a House aviation subcommittee.

"As far as I'm concerned, you don't need to check with anybody, except maybe the president of the United States," Mica told Magaw.

The agency met its first major deadline Jan. 18, when it began screening all checked bags electronically, manually, with dog teams or by matching each bag to a passenger.

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