JACKSONVILLE — Joseph Tyre empties the cellphones and keys from his pockets and prepares to be searched with a metal detector — for the fourth time today.
It's 11 a.m. at Jacksonville International Airport, and Tyre isn't a terrorism suspect. He's an airport maintenance worker. He and other workers at airports are part of a test ordered by Congress that aims to find out whether aviation security can be improved by screening employees every time they enter a restricted zone.
The test could lead to hundreds of thousands of airport workers facing the same screening as passengers — a prospect that Congress says could close a security loophole but which opponents call a logistical nightmare.
"It ain't worth a darn, and it's aggravating for us," said Tyre, who was checked by a screener near a luggage carousel in the airport's ground floor. Tyre, his hands blackened by grime, had been upstairs trying to fix a squeaky belt at an airline counter and was going to the secured area to get a grease gun.
In Jacksonville, Transportation Security Administration screeners are checking 4,300 workers a day, sometimes 10 times a day, before they go through doors leading to ticket counters, luggage belts and airplanes. Four of the eight employee checkpoints are near the airport perimeter to screen people driving onto the airfield.
Even the TSA opposes screening all airport workers — a point that Administrator Kip Hawley made to Congress last year when lawmakers were considering 100% employee screening.
"Airports are waiting to see what comes out of this," TSA Assistant Administrator John Sammon said.
The problem is that even after screening, airport workers can get heavy tools, jet fuel and possibly weapons that someone may toss over an airport fence, Sammon said. A better solution is to train workers to spot suspicious activity, such as a worker in an area where he shouldn't be or carrying something odd, Sammon said.
Congress ordered the three-month test last year after a series of incidents. In March 2007, a Comair baggage handler at Orlando International Airport was charged with using his airline ID to carry a duffel bag with 14 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana into the cabin of a Puerto Rico-bound flight. In July, a JetBlue worker at Orlando was charged after agreeing to smuggle two machine guns and four handguns onto a flight to Puerto Rico.
In April, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, said checking airport workers is a top issue in aviation security.
In all, about 900,000 workers are employed at the nation's 450 airports. As the Jacksonville test is showing, some workers resent being screened — and resentment can be a problem itself.
"Every time you annoy one of these guys by delaying them and pointing to them as a bad guy, they are not going to be your eyes and ears that can help spot something wrong," said aviation-security consultant Rich Roth.
"There are better ways than 100 percent physical screening," said Charles Chambers, head of security for the Airports Council International. The council and other aviation trade groups estimate that screening airport workers nationwide would cost up to $6.5 billion a year, the same as the TSA's annual budget.
'Unnecessary' or 'workable'?
Some in Jacksonville call the screening unnecessary because airport workers are checked for terrorist links, criminal records and immigration violations before receiving ID cards that allow them into secured areas. The TSA already screens workers at random places and times in secured airport areas.
In the main terminal at an employee checkpoint behind a Cinnabon, AirTran customer service representative Tiffany Turner said she's screened nine or 10 times a day. "It's overrated, unnecessary and too time consuming," Turner said after taking a couple of minutes to have a screener run a wand over her and look through her shoulder bag.
Other workers said they're rarely delayed, and one month into the test are used to being screened. Some like it. "We're in an airport. We expect our passengers to be screened. Why should we be different?" airport advertising manager Robin Camputaro said.
That reasoning is "seemingly logical," the TSA's Sammon said. And the short lines show that employee screening "is workable," he added.
The TSA is testing awareness training and additional random screening at tests in six other airports. The Homeland Security Institute of Arlington, Va., is being paid $640,000 to evaluate the tests when they end in July.
Two US airports screen all workers. Miami International began doing so in the 1990s to combat smuggling problems. Orlando started last year after the two arrests. "I do think it gives a sense to employees and passengers of better security," Orlando security director Brigitte Goersch said.
Jacksonville may continue screening workers after the TSA test ends. "It's very, very important to security, not just here but everyplace else," airport spokesman Michael Stewart said. "That is the weak point where restricted items can move into the secure area."