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Tuesday, September 30, 2014         

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TSA must close airport safety gap


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International travelers leaving Hawaii at Honolulu Airport were placed in danger by back-room federal employees who neglected to screen checked-in baggage for explosives in at least recent months. The Transportation Security Administration must explain how it happened and what the agency will do to assure safety at Honolulu and other airports around the country.

TSA gave termination notices last Friday to 36 employees and suspended a dozen others, in the agency's largest mass disciplinary action since it was created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those who received termination notices may appeal, while the others will be allowed to return to their jobs after up to 30 days without pay.

Facing termination are Glen Kajiyama, TSA security director at Honolulu Airport and a former deputy chief at the Honolulu Police Department, and former HPD major William Gulledge, assistant deputy director for screening. Their honorable backgrounds should have assured responsible service at the airport, but that doesn't seem to be the case now.

What occurred at Honolulu Airport is worrisome — and it may indicate a broader problem involving federal versus private screeners at airports. The actions follow U.S. House approval of the Department of Homeland Security's appropriations for fiscal year 2012, including limits for screener personnel, compensation and benefits. Rep. John L. Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, sponsored the limits amendment.

Mica, R-Fla., has called for privatization of screening at all U.S. airports. His staff completed a study several days prior to the Honolulu airport actions and concluded that taxpayers could save $1 billion over five years if the nation's top 35 airports hired private contractors. The study, comparing the federal screening at Los Angeles Airport and the contractor screening at San Francisco, maintains that contractor screening is also more efficient.

The General Accountability Office, Congress's research arm, has found otherwise, and Mica alleges that TSA "cooked the books" for GAO researchers by "artificially inflating the costs to use private contract screeners."

Responding, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the federal screeners' National Treasury Employees Union, told the Los Angeles Times, "I believe the American public would be loathe to return to the days less than a decade ago when low-paid, ill-trained employees of private contractors handled air passenger screening duties."

Screening at Honolulu and most other airports now is done by TSA employees, while a private-federal screening option exists at 16 airports. In January, TSA Administrator John Pistole said he had "examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time."

The termination notices and suspensions at Honolulu Airport certainly raise questions about whether a systemic problem exists at airports using federal employees to screen baggage. The actions also have broadened the issue of TSA's cost and efficiency to include effectiveness and should be thoroughly examined by Congress.

If air travelers, domestic and international, must routinely endure today's enhanced security measures, it must be worth the inconveniences.

Learning that a six-month TSA investigation found a safety gap big enough for 36 firings and 12 suspensions is alarming. Glitches in assuring safety from terrorism in the air cannot be tolerated.






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