Denver Int'l's Eagle-Eyed Screeners Keep Flying Safe

The items represent another day's work for several dozen early-shift Transportation Security Administration officers who act as a vital line of defense at the nation's sixth-busiest airport.

One box cutter, two bullets and 105 lighters.

Three knives more than 3 inches long, 24 less than 3 inches long.

A half-stick of butter, a plastic tub of artichoke and red onion hummus and a bottle of Budweiser wing sauce.

These are a fraction of the hundreds of prohibited items travelers surrendered or abandoned at a Denver International Airport security checkpoint on a recent Thursday morning.

Some had been haphazardly stuffed in pockets or carelessly thrown into purses long ago. Others were tucked in the crevices of backpacks or hidden in briefcases.

All were discovered by screeners at DIA's south checkpoint during the 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift.

"A lot of people are embarrassed, saying they forgot it was in their bag," says Elvia Rodriguez, a lead screener at the checkpoint. "Some just didn't know the most recent security information."

The items represent another day's work for several dozen early-shift Transportation Security Administration officers who act as a vital line of defense at the nation's sixth-busiest airport.

On any given day, they must deflect criticisms, verbal tirades and sometimes even physical threats from passengers who oppose the security rules or are just plain upset that they have to remove their shoes for the X-ray machine. Mostly, though, they deal with understanding travelers who acknowledge the importance of their jobs.

The role of the security screener has evolved in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which spurred the government to take over checkpoints from private companies. Screeners, like passengers, must adapt to frequent rule changes and keep an eye out for an ever-increasing number of items in a time when everything - including box cutters and seemingly innocuous shampoo bottles - is considered capable of bringing down a 747.

They have their work cut out for them: Screeners at DIA's three checkpoints collect an average of 500 pounds of prohibited items a month, not including liquids, amid record passenger levels.

"This is not just a job," says Rodriguez. "We take it very seriously. If we don't do our jobs right, we won't be able to live with the results. All of these lives depend on us."

Early start

Arpad Papp starts his day long before sunrise, waking at 2:15 a.m. sharp.

After showering and dressing, he grabs a microwavable strudel and hops in his 2003 Ford Explorer Sport Trac by 3 a.m.

The 52-year-old Thornton resident cruises through the darkness on open roads that won't be clogged with traffic for at least another three hours, reaching an employee parking lot in 30 minutes. From there, he takes a shuttle into work, arriving at 4 a.m. to prepare the south security checkpoint for the first of thousands of people who will soon begin streaming through.

Aside from the ghostly hum of electricity, the low rumble of moving walkways and the occasional echo of high heels, the airport is eerily silent.

Today, Papp is the south checkpoint's floor lead, "kind of like the lead of all leads," he says.

Papp, who's been a screener for two years and was recently promoted to a lead, is responsible on this day for managing 10 lanes. He must keep the lines moving and the checkpoint running smoothly while juggling work schedules, employee breaks, unexpected problems and traffic fluctuations.

"I feel like the pit boss back here," Papp says shortly after the checkpoint opens at 4:30 a.m.

Each lane must have at least four screeners to open, and he needs six on hand for employees to take breaks. Each lane can accommodate a maximum of eight to handle heavy traffic. Screeners rotate to new positions - X-ray machine, secondary screening, bag checks - throughout the shift to stay sharp.

The south checkpoint is the busiest by far, handling roughly 60 percent of the airport's traffic. One of the main reasons: It's just below the ticket counters of United Airlines, Denver's largest carrier.

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