Two weeks after an alleged liquid-explosives plot led to tougher air travel restrictions and searches, federal screeners and supervisors at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the nation's busiest, say a new security threat looms: fatigue.
While tens of thousands of nervous and grumpy passengers are getting used to the new ban on taking beverages and most other liquids and gels into plane cabins, the enforcement burden continues to fall hard on an already short- handed force of screeners.
Fifty- to 60-hour work weeks are mandatory. Hand searches of carry-on bags for the newly prohibited items suddenly are commonplace and time-consuming. Longer hours at X-ray machine monitors are straining screeners' eyes. And because of the added restrictions on carry-on items, the amount of checked luggage where liquids, gels and lotions still are allowed is skyrocketing.
Screeners and supervisors at Newark Airport one of three hubs used by terrorists to hijack flights on Sept. 11, 2001 say the extra hours, searches and need to increase vigilance are taking a toll on a 1,097-member work force that already was pressed to the limit with staff shortages. They say colleagues are sometimes nodding off at posts and absenteeism has jumped putting further stress on those remaining on the job. One screener says increased weariness is causing some prohibited items to be missed.
"How sharp can you be working 12 hours a day?" asked Pete Celentano, who spent three years as a checked-baggage screener at Newark before leaving in July because he already found work conditions intolerable before the latest crunch. "Even truck drivers can only work so many hours because they need to rest."
"I've got people falling asleep on X-ray (machines)," said one Newark lead screener. "I'm warning them, but I can't blame them. ... They can't maintain these 12-hour days."
The screener said new random secondary checks of passengers at flight gates just before they board planes are turning up items like gels, liquids and even some small knives that should have been discovered at the main checkpoints.
"They're missing things because they're tired," said the lead screener, who supervises a team at a checkpoint. The screener was one of nine TSA employees at Newark interviewed for this story. They were granted anonymity because of fears of retribution from agency officials. TSA does not allow screeners to discuss security-sensitive issues.
Asked about the screeners' comments about certain items getting through checkpoints and some individuals dozing off, Mark Hatfield, Newark Airport's federal security director, said he has "seen no evidence of unusual fatigue or negative performance" among employees over the past two weeks.
"The results show they're at a high-functioning level," he continued. "That said, we're working to get back to normal shift hours as soon as possible."
Activity at the airport is daunting: On an average summer day, some 60,000 passengers depart Newark, and under current carry-on restrictions the screeners are checking anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 bags.
Top TSA officials say they are concerned about the long hours but do not think the situation has reached a crisis level. They are taking steps to cut back screeners' hours where possible to reduce the effects of fatigue.
In an interview, Kip Hawley, who heads the TSA, said he was impressed with screeners' hard work, focus and morale during a visit Thursday to Newark Airport, where he toured the terminals and greeted the work force.
"It is not something that is in the critical mode," said Hawley when asked if screeners were reaching a breaking point. "But it's something we need to stay ahead of."
But Hawley said TSA's most pressing mission is simple: "It's all about finding the IEDs," referring to bombs as improvised explosive devices. "That is our job."
While he offered no timetable for scaling back the increased duties and hours, Hawley said there is a limit to what the work force can bear. He said he is most concerned about baggage screeners, who have seen checked luggage increase by 20 percent nationwide in the past two weeks. He said he would like airport operators and airlines to provide more people to lift bags, saving time for screeners to focus more on security initiatives.
Efforts also are afoot, Hawley said, to determine whether existing machines at checkpoints can be retrofitted to better target liquid explosives. He said staffing hours could be saved if the current ban on cigarette lighters on aircraft is lifted and he questioned the value of spending time to confiscate them. TSA screeners are confiscating about 30,000 lighters nationwide daily.
Hawley said he would like to see more TSA administrators moved to security functions, and a reduction in extra checks of passengers where possible. At the same time, he does not want screeners to "feel like they have a stopwatch," forcing them to speed passengers through checkpoints to reduce wait times.
"We don't want to have a 60-hour work week as the base," said Hawley, noting he "saw a lot of sweat" on his tour. "We want to have a fully engaged work force that has time for training, has time to be rested and has time to have a clear head. That is what we're watching."
Hawley cautioned that he has no plans to ask Congress for more screeners. "Now we have to figure out as a management team how we take this great positive energy and not burn it out, but still achieve a high level of security going for ward," he said.
Over the past week, The Star-Ledger spoke about the effects of the longer hours at Newark Airport with four local TSA staffers at supervisory levels, two lead screeners, one screener and two other members of the screener force on inactive duty.
Screeners varied in their assessments of how severe the effects on performance are now. Three cited examples of screeners dozing when they should be watching X-ray machines or while working key checkpoints. Most of them complained of increased absenteeism and they all said the current level of scrutiny cannot be maintained.
Screeners said life is especially unpleasant in two makeshift Terminal B baggage rooms, where sweating workers in T-shirts endure temperatures well into the 80s even with recently rigged air-conditioning units as they routinely lug heavy items that can exceed 70 pounds. International luggage is frequently piled more than six feet high awaiting scans through bomb-detection machines, the screeners said.
"It's like death down there," said one supervisor.
Roy Licklider, a Rutgers University political science professor with expertise on terrorism, said it would take massive amounts of money and manpower for the country to keep up the extra levels of vigilance without exhausting screeners.
"Historically, Israel (has kept up) heightened airline security for 30 years," Licklider said. "That's just the way they do business. But they don't do it on a mass scale."
He said keeping U.S. screeners at their posts longer is "a bad idea."
Licklider said terrorists commonly case their targets to spot repetition and flaws in security procedures.
"You see the same guy there for 10 to 12 hours, five or six days a week and you say, 'When is his shift going to (near its) end?"' said Licklider. "And shoot for that."
The increased workload also has prompted more screeners to call out sick, according to TSA supervisors.
When a recent six-week bonus program which paid screeners $750 for perfect attendance, starting shifts on time and exemplary performance ended a week ago, the number of call-outs for illness started ballooning, they said.
With the carrot gone, out came the stick; vexed top TSA officials at the airport warned that absences must be justified and violators faced disciplinary action.
"The last two weeks have been a strain on everyone, and of course my people are tired, but they continue to meet the mission requirement," said Hatfield, the TSA's federal security director at Newark.
Hatfield estimated the average screener now is working 50-hour weeks.
"I walk from checkpoint to checkpoint asking people how their feet and eyeballs are holding up," said Hatfield. "I think that they are bearing up well, but we always have to be concerned about the fatigue factor. And at some point, we may have to make other adjustments to ensure the high efficiency of their performance."
Even so, another member of TSA's screener force added: "These last two weeks have been pure hell."
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