A Day in the Life of an Airport Screener

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.

They move from the walk-through metal detector to the X-ray monitor to the bag-search position to the secondary-screening spot to the explosive-trace detection machine and so on.

Bulger steps in when there's a questionable X-ray image, or a bag search that needs an assist, or the discovery of a weapon or, as he puts it, to deal with "customer concerns that are escalating."

"Sometimes people are very attached to certain items," he says.

He works the 12:30 to 9 p.m. shift, which takes in the airport's busiest late-afternoon hours, when 15,000 passengers pass through security. By 4 p.m., the rush is in full force, a steady stream of humanity divesting itself of shoes and wallets, jewelry and keys amid a cacophonous white noise -- the hollow thud of plastic bins, the high-pitched stuttering beep of the metal detectors, the cries of "bag check!"

Minor dramas play out throughout the afternoon. The woman who got separated from her stepson in the security line. The baby who threw up. (Bulger only has to call for cleanup; TSOs don't deal with bodily fluids.) The forgotten boarding passes. The mother whose toddler is crying and fidgeting inside the explosives trace portal (a walk-in device that shoots air from its walls and, in a child's eyes, might appear at best a funhouse amusement and at worst a torture device). Summoned by another screener, Bulger asks if the woman can make her daughter stand still.

"She has autism! She can't be still," cries the exasperated mother. A female screener enters the machine, wraps her arms around the girl and takes her through.

A constant education

Amid this aural migraine, Bulger remains unflappable. If, after four years on the job, he has become weary of the strange (and strained) intimacies of the pat-down search, or the cluelessness of so many travelers after so long (some still don't understand that box cutters, the weapons used by the hijackers on 9/11, are not permissible, for example), he doesn't show it.

"When people are traveling, they have a lot on their minds," he says. "I have to believe that."

Which would explain the woman who departed his security lane wearing only one shoe. (She later returned for the other one.) Or the woman who walked away wearing the blue paper checkpoint-issued slippers. And speaking of shoes, the screeners are repeatedly subjected to the ripe scent of feet unleashed from their stifling confines. The TSA thoughtfully provides air freshener at the checkpoints, to be used discreetly by personnel as necessary.

Bulger has unwittingly tipped off parents to their children's vices by withdrawing cigarette lighters, and in one instance, a bag of marijuana, from their carry-ons. He and his colleagues have learned to watch for pet-toting passengers who absentmindedly send them through the X-ray machines. And he has caught travelers who are still bringing in banned sharp implements, which, when detected, are deposited in a metal cabinet with a one-way opening. Supervisors like Bulger help determine whether the offending carriers were simply absentminded or are "artfully concealing," which can bring a civil fine of up to $10,000.

If Bulger were ever easily embarrassed, he isn't anymore. A TSA employee mentions an incident that occurred the day before in Chicago, in which a young man packing a "male enhancement device" in his carry-on told the querying screener it was a bomb to avoid a humiliating admission in front of his mother. Bulger shrugs and says most "personal devices" are allowed and don't elicit so much as titters from screeners. "They come through so often, there's not much to talk about," he says.

In the days following last month's new restrictions, the TSA fielded questions that shed light on the remarkable stuff travelers feel compelled to tote along.

Was aerosol cheese allowed? (No.) Tanning towelettes? (Yes.) Goldfish? (Only without the water.) Bulger isn't one to question their motives. He has watched a chainsaw come down the conveyor belt (sans blade, but disallowed because it was loaded with gasoline). Then there was Thomas Jefferson's garden trowel being transported by a museum employee. (Not even a presidential trowel is allowed on board.) And a kitchen sink. (It got checked.)

And oddly, for reasons he has yet to discern, lots of harmonicas. (They're just fine.) --- E-mail

TSA lingo -- the abbreviated version

Like many bureaucracies, the Transportation Security Administration has defined an alphabet soup of abbreviations. A guide to the lingo:

TSO Transportation Security Officer. The airport personnel who scan bags and bodies ETD Explosive Trace Detection equipment. Reads swabs taken from items to detect trace amounts of explosives IED Improvised Explosive Device. An explosive that can be assembled once past security with seemingly innocuous components, hence the recent ban on liquids and gels. Explosive Detection System. Scans for explosives in checked bags. VAP Voluntarily Abandoned Property. Banned items stopped at security checkpoints. The most common are cigarette lighters (37,000 a day, nationwide), which are disposed of as hazardous waste. Non-hazardous items are given to state agencies for surplus property. ETP Explosive Trace Portal, aka puffer or puff portal. A machine that dispenses puffs of air and analyzes for traces of explosives

TSA by the numbers


Year TSA was created

$6.2 billion

The agency's annual budget


Current number of screeners


Number of screeners in 2002

$23,000 to $56,400

2 million

Average number of airport screenings daily, nationwide