July 02--No one trying to catch a flight likes to take off shoes and belts, dump personal belongings into a bin and wait to be scanned by a high-tech machine or frisked by a stranger in a blue uniform.
About 50,000 people submit to that routine at Orlando International Airport every day. Some of them -- 384 to be exact -- have complained in writing about how they were treated by the Transportation Security Administration officers who run the checkpoints.
"Going through security was pretty much HELL. The worst setup I've ever seen in an airport," said one of the comment cards handed in at the airport between July 2009 and September 2012.
Such criticisms, as well as 63 compliments, are among the documents and presentations that a 10-person panel is sifting through as it discusses whether to drop TSA and hire private contractors. A decision could be made in September.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, is the leading proponent of firing TSA, arguing that the agency he helped create has become bloated, inefficient and ignores the public it is sworn to protect.
Private security, he said, would be more responsive to travelers, as well as airport managers.
"Government is just less efficient and does not perform as well," Mica said.
The TSA replaced private security at 450 airports, including Orlando's, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The agency, which has 67,000 employees, has been reluctant to defend itself in the news media.
But Jerry Henderson, who runs TSA in Orlando, agreed recently to an exclusive interview with the Orlando Sentinel and to conduct a backstage tour.
Among the highlights were a control center where officers monitor the airport using closed-circuit cameras and stay in contact with officials across the nation. And there also was a room where luggage suspected of containing contraband is searched by hand. In both places, agents coolly went about their business, whether it was keeping an eye on travelers in the terminal or going through a bag with a bottle with liquids that X-rays could not identify.
Henderson said he knows passengers often grumble about TSA. But he said the vast majority of travelers at the airport have few complaints.
He pointed to a 2012 survey of 1,354 passengers who went through security at Orlando International. Almost 92 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the experience, according to the report by Valencia College.
The problem, Henderson said, often is one of perception. "They don't understand what we do, how important it is," he said.
An all-too-common refrain, he conceded, is that the lines are too long during times agents seem to be standing around, doing little other than chatting up frustrated travelers.
But he said those seemingly unengaged officers actually are scanning the crowd, looking for people acting strangely. What might appear to be an innocent conversation between an officer and a person waiting in line could uncover someone intending to cause trouble.
"There are a lot of moving parts," said Edgar Medina, who manages TSA's passenger screening program at Orlando International.
Mingling with the crowd is one of 20 levels of security that TSA helps provide at the airport, Henderson said. Others include sharing intelligence with other airports and agencies, enforcing no-fly lists and vetting crew members. In addition, trained experts determine if an X-ray machine looking at a carry-on bag has picked up a stray shoestring or the unattached fuse of a bomb.
Though Henderson will not disclose how many officers work at TSA in Orlando, his staff is responsible for moving travelers through 32 security lanes, divided between the east and west sides of the main terminal.
This year, officers have discovered an average of about a gun a week, while checking 37,000 bags. Nineteen guns have been picked up this year, compared with 40 last year. That's the highest number of guns found at any airport in the state.
During 2011, TSA officers confiscated almost 18,000 prohibited items, not including liquids, and referred 481 passengers to law enforcement, resulting in 57 arrests.
Orlando International board member Dean Asher is in charge of the panel considering TSA's fate.
"I think we need to hear their side of the story," said Asher, who already has seen presentations from Mica and private security contractors. Henderson cancelled a previous appointment with the board, but has agreed to speak to the committee this month.
Asher said he understands that TSA cannot please every passenger. TSA officers, he said, "are trying very, very hard," but he is worried that the extra effort he sees is related more to his panel's review rather than a desire to serve the public.
If the airport hires private contractors, they still would be supervised by TSA and operate under federal rules. Mica says contractors would save money by hiring fewer managers and would react more quickly to complaints because they could be fired more easily than federal employees.
Right now, 16 airports have private security, including San Francisco, Kansas City and smaller airports such as Key West and Jackson Hole, Wyo. Orlando Sanford International Airport still has TSA but is moving toward hiring contractors.
By law, TSA officials can take no position on whether their officers or contract workers handle security.
"We'll make it work either way," Henderson said.
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