BWI gets first U.S. baggage screeners

Federally trained staff takes over 2 checkpoints

May 01, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Security checkpoints at Baltimore-Washington International Airport became the first in the nation yesterday to be staffed entirely with new, federally trained baggage screeners.

A team of 221 men and women from across the country, fresh from a boot camp of sorts in Oklahoma City, set to work at two of the airport's five checkpoints. In coming weeks they will train several hundred others, and BWI's new federal screening staff should be complete by mid-June.

The initial team will then fan out to other airports across the country to train thousands of others.

For the new Transportation Security Administration, yesterday marked an important step toward its Nov. 19 deadline, when federally trained screeners must be in place at every checkpoint in the nation's more than 400 commercial airports.

"We have put the best and the brightest to work at this fine airport," said TSA chief John Magaw during a visit to BWI yesterday. "They understand the kinds of things that will not only give us good security but get it done as quickly as possible with courtesy."

As of yesterday, none of the nearly 5,000 applicants for screener jobs at BWI had been hired. But the winnowing is expected to begin almost immediately.

The team of screeners who arrived in Baltimore over the weekend had passed an initial assessment to make sure that they met basic qualifications. Then they were enrolled in classes at a Federal Aviation Administration training center in Oklahoma City. Coming from 30 states, they've had careers in law enforcement, the military and some, like Estella Sanchez, in airline security.

A baggage screener at El Paso International Airport in Texas, she said the new training bore little resemblance to the lessons given by her previous employer, a private security firm. Until her experience in Oklahoma City, she'd had only eight to 10 hours of training.

Under the TSA system, she spent 40 hours in a classroom, where lessons included scanner technology, search procedures, conflict resolution and customer service. At BWI, she'll spend another 60 hours in on-the-job training.

She said she has developed a sharper eye for identifying potentially dangerous objects and a greater sensitivity to the frustrations of passengers. She'll spend much of the coming months away from her husband and children as she travels to other airports to share the lessons with others.

"Before, a lot of people didn't care," Sanchez said. "I care. The toughest part is that we're in the spotlight if we make a mistake. But I think I can make a difference. I hope we get some respect when we do a good job."

In the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, BWI has become a focal point for experimentation as the Transportation Security Administration worked to develop better airport security. A month ago, the agency unveiled a prototype security checkpoint at BWI that was devised to move people through quickly while screening carefully for dangerous objects - a model that is expected to be copied nationwide.

But the traveling public still has its own lessons to learn. Yesterday, Magaw displayed scores of potentially dangerous objects - mostly scissors, but also wrenches, corkscrews and large pocket knives - all confiscated by BWI screeners at a single checkpoint over the weekend.

As part of the evolving changes coming out of TSA, Magaw announced new rules yesterday for carry-on items. Tweezers, nail files and small nail clippers will now be allowed. A new list of about 70 banned items included such things as toy robots that can be transformed into toy guns, pool cues, dog repellent spray and ice picks. The complete list is available at www.tsa.gov under press releases.

Overall, the changes at BWI are likely to be subtle, said Magaw. And what works during the initial test weeks might not make sense at other airports, he said.

"There's an old saying: If you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport," he said. "One size doesn't fit all."

If travelers notice any difference, he said, it may be "a professionalism in appearance and demeanor."

"You should not see any slipshod operations at all," he said.

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