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.

The morning rush for DIA's checkpoints - there's also one on the north side of the main terminal and one on the bridge leading to the A concourse - come in waves. First at 4:30, then 6, followed by 8 and finally 10:30 before a lunchtime slowdown.

The south checkpoint will screen more than 10,000 passengers during Papp's shift, on the low end for an average morning. During the busiest times of the year, the number climbs above 12,000 during the early shift and can hit upward of 30,000 for the day.

This slow Thursday is by no means a cakewalk, though.

Five workers call in sick, and several others are summoned to help screen checked baggage below the airport. At one point, an explosives detection device malfunctions. Later, security screeners spot something highly suspicious on the X-ray machine, forcing a lane to close temporarily.

Despite the unexpected hurdles, security waits at the checkpoint remain under 15 minutes during Papp's entire shift.

"Half the battle is the balancing act," he says.

A 'need to help'

TSA screeners have diverse backgrounds. Some were born and bred in Colorado, and some are immigrants.

Papp, for instance, moved to the U.S. from Budapest, Hungary, in 1975, settling in New York just after the World Trade Center opened. He eventually moved to Colorado and worked at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant for two decades, first as a mechanical engineer and later as a technical writer.

As the operation neared its long-planned close, though, he decided to look for a new line of work, eventually settling on the TSA. His son, Chris, works as a part-time screener at the checkpoint, having recently graduated from high school.

The TSA employs up to 43,000 screeners nationwide, although the agency won't release specific numbers by individual airport. Up to 50 are at the south checkpoint at any one time, and there are five main shifts that cycle through from 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Many TSA officers have military and law enforcement experience. Others have never worked for the government or in security. Many are in second careers, having left jobs as techies and nurses because of layoffs or the desire for a fresh start.

Some were drawn to the position by a need to do something after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"After 9/11, I just felt a need to help," said Rodriguez, who became a screener just two months after the attacks.

Most, though, seem to enjoy talking to the public.

"I pride myself on being good at customer service," John Shaeffer, who took a job with the TSA four years ago after he was laid off from his job building circuit boards, said while stacking plastic bins at the end of a security line. "I try to get passengers to relax and maybe even laugh a little bit."

Screeners must be American citizens and have at least a GED. They must be proficient in English and pass criminal and employment background checks. They must have excellent color vision and possess the ability to distinguish between small changes in shades of lightness and darkness, key skills needed to staff an X-ray machine. They must be able to lift 40 pounds on their own and endure a training regimen that includes eight classroom days and 75 hours of on-the-job training. Once hired, they undergo additional training each month and must get recertified annually.

The average screener makes $33,000 annually, while leads such as Papp and Rodriguez average around $40,000.

Some certainly could find better-paying jobs in the private sector. But screeners are loyal: 60 percent of those hired when the TSA took over security at DIA are still working the checkpoints today.

Passengers still confused

Most travelers, it seems, know the basic rules.

No razor blades or pocketknives. No stun guns or hatchets. No firearms, real or fake.

But screeners catch several dozen travelers a day carrying knives, and they find a firearm about every two weeks.

At 9 a.m., one woman even tries to bring a tile cutter - complete with a saw blade - through the checkpoint. The woman tells screeners that she's afraid the tool will break if she doesn't bring it on herself. She ends up leaving security to check the item and returns to the checkpoint a half-hour later.

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