Thousands of workers at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will --- for the first time --- be subject to "random security screenings" beginning next week.
The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday that it plans to begin the random screenings as part of a ramped-up effort to increase behind-the-scenes security at the world's busiest airport.
"It's a very important program to aviation security because it adds an unpredictable layer to screening of individuals on the secure side of the airport," said TSA spokesman Christopher White. "No longer can an employee working in any airport secure area know with 100 percent certainty that they, their packages or their vehicles will not be searched by TSA."
White declined to say when the program would kick off at Hartsfield-Jackson or how many TSA officers would be involved. Airport officials said they have been told the random screenings will begin Monday.
The new security program, officially called ADASP, or "Aviation Direct Access Screening Program," will eventually be implemented at 450 airports, White said. He said some have already implemented the program or are about to, but declined to name those facilities.
More than 55,000 people work at Hartsfield-Jackson: everyone from pilots to baggage handlers to executives with the city of Atlanta's Department of Aviation, which runs the facility. Many of those workers currently do not have to pass through the same security system as passengers.
"They undergo extensive background checks that are continuously vetted against our watch list," White said of airport workers with security clearance. "They have been deemed trustworthy."
But workers like John Pepper Atkinson, an AirTran mechanic, will now be subjected to spur-of-the moment TSA searches. Atkinson said he already has undergone a special FBI background check and has to access the AirTran hangar using a code and a biometric fingerprint reader. From there, he boards a bus to the flight line where he works alongside the big jets.
"I don't think anyone would have a problem with it, as long as it makes everyone safer," Atkinson said of the new layer of security. "I don't feel like they're intruding on my rights or anything."
One of about 200 AirTran mechanics in Atlanta, Atkinson said he wants to know more about the program and how it will be implemented. He first learned of it when a reporter called.
"If it means holding my hands up and doing a scan, they'll find screwdrivers and sharp objects like that," Atkinson said. "I mean, I'm a mechanic."
The searches are primarily aimed at detecting firearms and explosives, according to the TSA.
Late last year, federal agents arrested six illegal immigrants at Hartsfield-Jackson who had security badges that gave them access to restricted areas, including the tarmac. The men, who were not considered a security threat, worked for a company that was installing drywall.
Still, White said no specific incident led to the stepped-up security. He described it as part of TSA's overall plan to continually upgrade safety at U.S. airports.
TSA, he said, has more than 1,000 security officers at Hartsfield-Jackson. He said the new searches will be conducted by officers from the current staff. That, he said, should not adversely affect the passenger screening operation.
"It will have a very limited impact on wait times [at the security gates], but a substantial impact on security," he said.
Ben DeCosta, Hartsfield-Jackson's general manager, said he plans to discuss the staffing issue with TSA, but does not think the random checks will deplete TSA officers needed for the passenger security gates.
"This is one more good layer of security that makes the airport safer," DeCosta said. "Employee screening is an issue, and this puts that to rest." The searches will be conducted, White said, by a "group of roving TSOs [Transportation Security Officers]."
"We may be at a gate one day, at an access area another day, and we may be under the airport the next day," he said.
That secure area includes the ramps, baggage-handling areas, stairways, jetways and taxiways, White said.
Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said her company, which employs about 15,000 people at Hartsfield-Jackson, supports TSA's efforts but "will keep an eye on how this impacts our operation."
"Safety and security are our top priorities, "Laughlin said of the Atlanta-based airline. "But we also realize our customers desire to have flights that operate on time."
Most of Delta's employees, she said, have special security clearance. Most arrive on a bus that goes through the main gate and drops them off at ramp level.
"We are communicating with our employees about this new program so they'll be ready in case they have a screening," Laughlin said.
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