TSA boss admits blunders

 - August 11, 2008, 6:47 AM

In testimony before Congress in June, Admiral James Loy, head of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), stated that 1,208 of the airport passenger security screeners employed by his agency had been recently dismissed after checks of their backgrounds revealed unsatisfactory personal histories, including major felonies. Loy said the TSA now employs “more than 55,000 of the world’s best-trained screeners.” But he also pointed out that fingerprints of a further 1,550 employees were unreadable and required further checks.

Nevertheless, he said, the security checks applied to airline passenger baggage screeners were “more thorough than what is required for airport workers with unescorted access to secured areas of the airport.” When told of Loy’s statement, one airline captain said, “That’s ridiculous–and completely backwards. Ramp baggage handlers, aircraft cleaners and catering personnel have infinitely more access to my airplane than anyone going through passenger security.”

But airline pilots could soon be armed, under the TSA’s Federal Flight Deck Officer program, provided they can pass a battery of rigorous psychological, physical and personal background tests, followed by a one-week training course–at their own expense, and with a six-month renewal check–to determine their individual acceptability to the agency. Applications are available at the TSA’s Web site (www.tsa.gov).

To be ready for this program, the TSA in July ordered 9,600 German-built .40-caliber semiautomatics. The small, 1.5-pound weapon–the manufacturer’s law-enforcement model–offers several features, including a lightweight trigger and a 12-round magazine.

Before this program started, the only individuals allowed to carry guns on board commercial aircraft were the TSA’s own air marshals who, since shortly after 9/11, have routinely criss-crossed the country in business class. The TSA will not reveal how many former law-enforcement officers it has employed as air marshals, but the addition of armed airline pilots to their numbers might compensate for the reported “several hundred” marshals recently terminated when background checks revealed their unsuitability–after many of them had already spent up to 18 months on the job.

One hopes these included the individual who last year was said to have commanded all passengers to place their hands on top of their heads for the last 30 minutes of the flight, and the other marshal who reportedly prevented an anxious Congressman from using the aircraft toilet for an urgent call of nature, thereby causing him a most embarrassing experience.