DULLES, Va. -- When you spend eight-plus hours a day standing watch at an airport security checkpoint, you learn a few things about the traveling public. Among them:
*The condition of their socks is, for the most part, not bad.
*A surprising number are packing harmonicas.
*Passengers are much more malleable when they understand what's going on.
That last point can be a challenge for the 43,000 Transportation Security Administration screeners stationed at airport checkpoints, particularly in the weeks since a potential plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners sparked a ban on carry-on liquids, gels and other seemingly innocuous substances.
Witness this exchange at Dulles International Airport near Washington, where screener Matt Bulger is fishing through a black carry-on.
His catch: a can of Edge shaving cream, a tube of Crest toothpaste and a bottle of Calvin Klein cologne.
The bag's owner, Reston, Va., management consultant Greg Boyer, watches silently, lips pursed.
"Is there anyone outside security you could give these to?" Bulger asks.
"Nope. No time," Boyer responds, as he watches $40 or so in grooming aids unceremoniously tossed into a gray plastic bin.
"Well, thank you for understanding," says Bulger deferentially.
It is just after 3:30 p.m., crunch time at the nation's 21st busiest airport, where Bulger and his colleagues are teetering on the front lines of TSA's balancing act between ensuring the safety of the 30,000 passengers who pass through here daily and delivering customer service.
The critics are vocal: The screening process is mere window dressing. The rules are inconsistent. (Why isn't lip gloss allowed on board, but KY Jelly is?) The enforcement is arbitrary, they say.
A quip among frequent fliers: TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around.
At the moment, Bulger is too intent on the tasks at hand to respond to such criticisms. But if he did, you can bet he'd do so politely.
Five years ago, the job that has put him on a management track and brought meaning to his days didn't exist. But that was before terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
Bulger, now 28, became a screener with a private security company at Dulles in May 2002 and joined the first wave of government screeners when the TSA took over airport security later that year.
He exudes the wholesomeness of Wally Cleaver and the boyishness of Doogie Houser, a sprinkling of freckles on his face and a close-cropped ridge of dark hair rising off his forehead. When he says he took this job because he truly wanted to make a difference -- and thought he could -- you believe him. And when he tells you that while getting ready for work, he adjusts his TSA-issued tie in the reflection of a framed poster of the pre-9/11 New York skyline with the words "United We Stand" printed across it, his eyes moisten at the mere thought of that image.
And even a cynic has to believe he's sincere.
A constant rotation
Dulles employs 671 full-time-equivalent transportation security officers, or TSOs (the official name for screeners) at 21 security lanes at a single central checkpoint. (By comparison, TSA's largest operation at Los Angeles International, which has eight terminals and eight separate checkpoints, employs three times that number.)
Screeners undergo criminal-background and medical checks. They have to be able to lift 70 pounds, be proficient in English and be U.S. citizens. New hires complete 40 to 60 hours of training, and everyone is subject to up to three hours of additional training weekly.
"It keeps their head in the game," says John Lenihan, TSA's federal security director at Dulles. "They could pick out cigarette lighters (off an X-ray screen) in their sleep."
As a supervisory TSO, Bulger's turf covers two to four security lanes, working with a team of six to 12 that rotates positions every 30 minutes to remain fresh in executing duties that could quickly become monotonous.
Federal screeners and supervisors at Newark Liberty Int'l Airport say a new security threat looms: fatigue.
It could be a tough season when the volume of travelers soars later this month for Thanksgiving.
X-ray devices show carry-ons in 3-D
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.