They are the front lines of aviation security: The men and women who sit in front of X-ray machines day after day, looking at the contents of carry-on bags, pocketbooks and briefcases.
But that front line has been widely seen as the weak link in the security fence designed to prevent terrorism on airplanes taking off from U.S. airports. Screeners have monotonous jobs, little training or incentive and their ranks suffer almost constant turnover.
The weak link will get some reinforcement under a set of proposed rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, expected to become final this spring. Responding to a key recommendation from the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, the FAA said last week it plans to require that the companies with which airlines contract to screen passengers and luggage be certified by the FAA, just as airlines must be certified in order to fly. And screeners will be required to undergo more standardized training and testing.
And in a move that could vastly increase the effectiveness of the screening, the agency plans to randomly test screeners using a new device that projects images of knives, guns and explosives into actual luggage being screened. After the screener has made the appropriate response, the machine will indicate that it was a test; if the appropriate response is not made, the machine will tell the screener that he or she just failed a test.
The images will come from a database of hundreds, so the screeners won't be able to memorize a test image. The screeners will only be allowed so many failures before the company could be in danger of losing its certification. ``It's objective and it's testing everybody all the time,'' FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said.
The new requirements are likely to increase the costs of the security companies, costs that could be passed on to the airlines that contract with the companies, security experts said. ``The airlines are going to have to devote more of their budgets to security,'' said John Hall, director of security services for Strang Hayes Consulting, a New York City firm.
Hall said the rules will help, especially if the companies increase pay for the screeners, which would increase the motivation of the employees and decrease the turnover rate.
In many European countries, the screeners receive higher pay and more training. In documents proposing the rule, the FAA said it conducted joint tests with screeners from the United States and a European country and found that the European screeners performed better.
In order to deploy the device that will project images of contraband items in X-ray screens, the FAA will replace 1,400 X-ray machines across the nation at a cost of $60 million.