The changing face of airport screeners

Scott Tong Aug 14, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was on the Sunday talk shows yesterday. Ordinarily he’d be just another talking head. But in the wake of last week’s terror scare Mr. Chertoff made actual news. The government’s going to fine tune its airport security procedures.

Taking off your shoes is now mandatory. You can now take a small bottle of liquid non-prescription medicine in your carry-on. Those changes are obvious. Others might be more subtle. For example, those folks who check your ID before you get to the metal detector? Now, they’re often private contractors. But Chertoff wants to replace them with federal workers. Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports.

SCOTT TONG: Right now, airlines bear the responsibility for checking IDs. And they contract it out, on the cheap, says counterterrorism consultant Larry Johnson.

LARRY JOHNSON: It’s a loss leader. It doesn’t earn airlines profit. It causes airlines to lose profit. Security is always sort of the red-headed stepchild of these operations.

So it’s a good idea, he says, to hand the job to the Transportation Security Administration. Now, the TSA has a mixed reputation. There’ve been turnover problems and checkpoint lapses. The joke out there is TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around.

But Kevin Mitchell, who represents business travelers, says Uncle Sam can best train the ID screeners.And not just to check for your boarding pass. The government’s new push is to spot telltale gestures that might give away a terrorist.

KEVIN MITCHELL: If you go back to the videotapes of 9/11 you can see the kind of anxiety on the faces and the expressions and the body movements of at least some of the hijackers.

But no one was paying attention to that. Now, this behavior training costs money, either from Congress or higher ticket prices. But Mitchell says consider the economic alternative. What if the London plot succeeded.

MITCHELL: It would have been lights out, game over. No customers, no flight crews, no investors.

If the TSA plan goes through, not everyone considers behavior modeling the silver bullet. Consultant Larry Johnson:

JOHNSON: There used to be profiling of drug dealers. And in the early days they looked for the guys wearing the gold chains and between 18 and 30 years of age, OK? What did the drug dealers do? They started using grandmothers.

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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