TSA Airport Screeners Find Each Day Full of Surprises

May 3, 2007
Everything and anything is what transportation security officers expect. For instance, mice stowaways in handbags, monkeys or pot-bellied pigs that turn out to be "service animals" for the handicapped.

It's 5:30 a.m. and Flossie Ridley is hitting her stride.

Wearing a government-issue white shirt, dark pants and blue latex gloves, Ridley smiles as she works the crowd, which consists of people filing by one at a time, shoeless and hoping they'll make it through without a sound.

"How are you today?"

"Thank you for sharing."

"Have a great day."

Of the many duties Ridley rotates through each day as an officer for the Transportation Security Administration, this, she says, "is the fun part" - working the walk-through metal detector at a passenger checkpoint at Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport.

"You get to meet people," she said. "You see everything."

Everything and anything is what transportation security officers expect. For instance, mice stowaways in handbags, monkeys or pot-bellied pigs that turn out to be "service animals" for the handicapped. An entire gas-powered lawn mower stuffed into a suitcase. And celebrities, from Heisman trophy winners to country singers.

"Jerry Lewis was wonderful," officer Mary Stevens said.

The one constant: passengers. About 6,000 of them come through this airport on the average day. Enthusiastic mission workers heading to distant lands, stoic business travelers, stressed parents struggling to keep children and schedules in line. Most are pleasant. Some aren't.

"We get a lot of hostility," Ridley says. But it's all worth it. "I love my job."

Ridley, 47, has felt that way since the day almost five years ago when she answered an ad in the newspaper for a new agency designed to make commercial air travel safer. Born in Boley, Ridley moved at age 10 with her family of 11 to Oklahoma City. For more than two decades, she worked in the grocery business or helped manage a warehouse. She married and settled in Midwest City, becoming a widow in 1993 when her husband, Elmer, who painted aircraft at Tinker Air Force Base, died.

'One way I could help'

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ridley recalled, she wanted to do something for her country. But she was too old for the military and had no law enforcement experience.

"This was one way I could help," she said.

Ridley was accepted to become one of more than 40,000 TSA employees. That's why at 3:30 a.m. on this morning, Ridley and about 50 of the more than 150 transportation service officers who work at Will Rogers are gathered in a room on the lower level. It's the beginning of another day in the endless search for things, snakes included, that should never end up on a plane.

Today, the officers spend 30 minutes on required reading - classified TSA reports of field investigations, new standard operating procedures and preparations for upcoming recertification tests. It is part of their four hours per week of training, which even includes building simulated bombs. Soon, the security officers disperse to relieve the previous shift, covering security checkpoints, gates, exits and baggage areas in the bowels of the remodeled airport.

Every transportation security officer seems to have a favorite spot. For Ted Myers, it's working one of the L3s, monstrous CT scan machines that peer through checked baggage.

"I'm not too crazy about dealing with the public," Myers said.

If an L3 detects a suspicious shape, it will "alarm" and show a security officer X-ray images of the luggage, images that can be rotated to give a better look. If that doesn't clear things up, the bag is searched by hand and "sniffed" with a device that checks for residue from explosive components.

Since all security officers rotate among the various positions every 30 minutes, there's something for everyone. First up for Ridley - the exit. Here she sits at a podium to make sure all passenger traffic here is one way - away from arriving planes. Sounds boring. But, Ridley said, this is where reunions happen - "passengers coming out to meet their loved ones."

Next - secondary screening. Here, passengers who set off the walk-through metal detector or those exhibiting suspicious behavior or meeting other undisclosed criteria are further scrutinized. Their belongings are searched, including being swiped with cloth swatches that are analyzed instantly for explosives residue. Taking care to be "very gender specific" (males search males, females search females) officers also use a metal-detecting wand and pat down passengers where a beep is heard from the detector. On this morning, that includes a woman holding an infant.

Passengers seem to take the scrutiny in stride. As she goes through the same routine with Barbara Johnson, of Buffalo, N.Y., Ridley asks, "Did you have a good time in Oklahoma?"

The woman chats and smiles. "I would hate to rob someone and go through all of this," Johnson says. But she seems OK with the slight delay.

"If you aren't guilty of anything, you've got nothing to worry about," she says.

On to the X-ray monitor. Here Ridley sits or stands staring at images of carry-on bags, jackets and other items passing through a scanner - a gallery of shoes, wires, circuit boards and other shapes glowing orange, blue and green. If she's not sure about what she's seeing, Ridley stops the conveyor and pulls out a bag for another run through the ImageQuest 8790.

"I've got to lay it down to get a better angle at it," she tells a passenger.

This is where Ridley in the past has found a gun and a small pipe bomb, both carried by passengers who said they forgot the items were in their luggage. Transportation security officers have spotted small animals, from turtles and hermit crabs to dogs. In California, TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said, "somebody tried to put a baby through."

The contraband for this screening session: olive oil.

Ridley moves to bag checking. Here, she searches carry-on luggage that raises concerns at the X-ray machine. A few passengers take exception to someone going through their things. One woman scowls and shakes her head.

After a 30-minute lunch break, it's time for the caverns. Down here, there are no passengers, only mounds of checked luggage, humming machines beneath suspended fluorescent lighting and exposed electrical conduit and plumbing pipe. The comfort level is, let's say, variable. Large doors open wide for baggage trams, allowing in diesel and jet fumes, along with the cold and heat.

"Not exactly temperature-friendly," lead transportation security officer Ronette Burgett says. She waits for bags from airline desks upstairs to feed down conveyors and into the mouth of her L3. Transportation security officers are nothing if not thorough. So at times they turn their attention even on employees. Ridley and two other officers pick an entry to the baggage area and start counting workers walking through. Today's number, selected earlier by a computer: five. They stop the fifth employee.

"Oh, man!" the worker says, smiling but exasperated.

Part of security now includes these random employee checks, which includes the same scrutiny normally aimed at those boarding aircraft: removing shoes and items from pockets, wanding and, if necessary, frisking.

It's 10 a.m. Only two more hours to go, and Ridley shows no sign of wear. But for Ridley, reaching the end of a day or a career isn't the point.

So tomorrow, Flossie Ridley, the "morning person" who loves what she does, will wake up at 1:30 a.m. to do it all again - check bags, watch monitors and, of course, work the crowd.

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