Airport Screeners Feel Strain of 60-Hour Weeks

Federal screeners and supervisors at Newark Liberty Int'l Airport say a new security threat looms: fatigue.

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."

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