Denver Int'l's Eagle-Eyed Screeners Keep Flying Safe

Oct. 2, 2006
The items represent another day's work for several dozen early-shift Transportation Security Administration officers who act as a vital line of defense at the nation's sixth-busiest airport.

One box cutter, two bullets and 105 lighters.

Three knives more than 3 inches long, 24 less than 3 inches long.

A half-stick of butter, a plastic tub of artichoke and red onion hummus and a bottle of Budweiser wing sauce.

These are a fraction of the hundreds of prohibited items travelers surrendered or abandoned at a Denver International Airport security checkpoint on a recent Thursday morning.

Some had been haphazardly stuffed in pockets or carelessly thrown into purses long ago. Others were tucked in the crevices of backpacks or hidden in briefcases.

All were discovered by screeners at DIA's south checkpoint during the 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift.

"A lot of people are embarrassed, saying they forgot it was in their bag," says Elvia Rodriguez, a lead screener at the checkpoint. "Some just didn't know the most recent security information."

The items represent another day's work for several dozen early-shift Transportation Security Administration officers who act as a vital line of defense at the nation's sixth-busiest airport.

On any given day, they must deflect criticisms, verbal tirades and sometimes even physical threats from passengers who oppose the security rules or are just plain upset that they have to remove their shoes for the X-ray machine. Mostly, though, they deal with understanding travelers who acknowledge the importance of their jobs.

The role of the security screener has evolved in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which spurred the government to take over checkpoints from private companies. Screeners, like passengers, must adapt to frequent rule changes and keep an eye out for an ever-increasing number of items in a time when everything - including box cutters and seemingly innocuous shampoo bottles - is considered capable of bringing down a 747.

They have their work cut out for them: Screeners at DIA's three checkpoints collect an average of 500 pounds of prohibited items a month, not including liquids, amid record passenger levels.

"This is not just a job," says Rodriguez. "We take it very seriously. If we don't do our jobs right, we won't be able to live with the results. All of these lives depend on us."

Early start

Arpad Papp starts his day long before sunrise, waking at 2:15 a.m. sharp.

After showering and dressing, he grabs a microwavable strudel and hops in his 2003 Ford Explorer Sport Trac by 3 a.m.

The 52-year-old Thornton resident cruises through the darkness on open roads that won't be clogged with traffic for at least another three hours, reaching an employee parking lot in 30 minutes. From there, he takes a shuttle into work, arriving at 4 a.m. to prepare the south security checkpoint for the first of thousands of people who will soon begin streaming through.

Aside from the ghostly hum of electricity, the low rumble of moving walkways and the occasional echo of high heels, the airport is eerily silent.

Today, Papp is the south checkpoint's floor lead, "kind of like the lead of all leads," he says.

Papp, who's been a screener for two years and was recently promoted to a lead, is responsible on this day for managing 10 lanes. He must keep the lines moving and the checkpoint running smoothly while juggling work schedules, employee breaks, unexpected problems and traffic fluctuations.

"I feel like the pit boss back here," Papp says shortly after the checkpoint opens at 4:30 a.m.

Each lane must have at least four screeners to open, and he needs six on hand for employees to take breaks. Each lane can accommodate a maximum of eight to handle heavy traffic. Screeners rotate to new positions - X-ray machine, secondary screening, bag checks - throughout the shift to stay sharp.

The south checkpoint is the busiest by far, handling roughly 60 percent of the airport's traffic. One of the main reasons: It's just below the ticket counters of United Airlines, Denver's largest carrier.

The morning rush for DIA's checkpoints - there's also one on the north side of the main terminal and one on the bridge leading to the A concourse - come in waves. First at 4:30, then 6, followed by 8 and finally 10:30 before a lunchtime slowdown.

The south checkpoint will screen more than 10,000 passengers during Papp's shift, on the low end for an average morning. During the busiest times of the year, the number climbs above 12,000 during the early shift and can hit upward of 30,000 for the day.

This slow Thursday is by no means a cakewalk, though.

Five workers call in sick, and several others are summoned to help screen checked baggage below the airport. At one point, an explosives detection device malfunctions. Later, security screeners spot something highly suspicious on the X-ray machine, forcing a lane to close temporarily.

Despite the unexpected hurdles, security waits at the checkpoint remain under 15 minutes during Papp's entire shift.

"Half the battle is the balancing act," he says.

A 'need to help'

TSA screeners have diverse backgrounds. Some were born and bred in Colorado, and some are immigrants.

Papp, for instance, moved to the U.S. from Budapest, Hungary, in 1975, settling in New York just after the World Trade Center opened. He eventually moved to Colorado and worked at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant for two decades, first as a mechanical engineer and later as a technical writer.

As the operation neared its long-planned close, though, he decided to look for a new line of work, eventually settling on the TSA. His son, Chris, works as a part-time screener at the checkpoint, having recently graduated from high school.

The TSA employs up to 43,000 screeners nationwide, although the agency won't release specific numbers by individual airport. Up to 50 are at the south checkpoint at any one time, and there are five main shifts that cycle through from 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Many TSA officers have military and law enforcement experience. Others have never worked for the government or in security. Many are in second careers, having left jobs as techies and nurses because of layoffs or the desire for a fresh start.

Some were drawn to the position by a need to do something after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"After 9/11, I just felt a need to help," said Rodriguez, who became a screener just two months after the attacks.

Most, though, seem to enjoy talking to the public.

"I pride myself on being good at customer service," John Shaeffer, who took a job with the TSA four years ago after he was laid off from his job building circuit boards, said while stacking plastic bins at the end of a security line. "I try to get passengers to relax and maybe even laugh a little bit."

Screeners must be American citizens and have at least a GED. They must be proficient in English and pass criminal and employment background checks. They must have excellent color vision and possess the ability to distinguish between small changes in shades of lightness and darkness, key skills needed to staff an X-ray machine. They must be able to lift 40 pounds on their own and endure a training regimen that includes eight classroom days and 75 hours of on-the-job training. Once hired, they undergo additional training each month and must get recertified annually.

The average screener makes $33,000 annually, while leads such as Papp and Rodriguez average around $40,000.

Some certainly could find better-paying jobs in the private sector. But screeners are loyal: 60 percent of those hired when the TSA took over security at DIA are still working the checkpoints today.

Passengers still confused

Most travelers, it seems, know the basic rules.

No razor blades or pocketknives. No stun guns or hatchets. No firearms, real or fake.

But screeners catch several dozen travelers a day carrying knives, and they find a firearm about every two weeks.

At 9 a.m., one woman even tries to bring a tile cutter - complete with a saw blade - through the checkpoint. The woman tells screeners that she's afraid the tool will break if she doesn't bring it on herself. She ends up leaving security to check the item and returns to the checkpoint a half-hour later.

Later, screeners question two men who are caught separately carrying one bullet each. One's a hunter, the other a landlord who found the item on his property. Both say they didn't realize the bullets were in their bags.

With the exception of weapons, passengers are allowed to go back and check or mail banned items. Otherwise, they can abandon them at the checkpoint, which is what most do.

Some travelers seem confused by a new policy prohibiting some liquids, gels and creams, including things such as makeup and mouthwash, from carry-on bags. The TSA enacted the rules in August after a plot was discovered in the United Kingdom to bomb U.S.-bound airlines using liquid explosives. The organization recently eased the policy somewhat, allowing small amounts through security.

Despite ample reminders throughout the airport, including signs and public address announcements, a fair share of passengers on this day still have liquids with them at the checkpoint. The evidence is in a 4-foot-tall trash bin, which quickly fills with toiletries, cosmetics and bottled beverages and must be emptied by midmorning.

Screeners say they must sift through twice the number of bags as they did before the ban and that most of the offending items are toiletries and lighters.

"These new rules slow things down a little, but we're just doing our job," Al Myers, assistant federal security director for screening, says during a short visit to the south checkpoint.

People also often forget and leave things behind.

The most common are laptops, cell phones and jackets. But passengers also have left baby strollers, backpacks, watches, belts, money clips and, once, a $24,000 ring.

Prohibited items such as lighters are sent to the General Services Administration, and screeners turn over firearms and illegal items to law enforcement. Liquids, creams and gels are trashed, while items left behind go to the lost and found.

1 percent

Mike Torrez can tell when someone's getting upset, just by observing body language from afar.

"I'm watching people all the time," says Torrez, a supervisory transportation security officer at DIA. "I'm watching how they're interacting with other passengers and with screeners. I can tell when tensions are rising."

That's when he steps in, looking to calm the situation before it escalates. Or to call over a police officer stationed at the checkpoint if it does.

Most passengers, he said, take the rules in stride.

Passengers such as Lisa Mougin, who jokes with a screener emptying numerous cosmetics, lip gloss and hair products from her bag.

"I guess I just wasn't cognizant that I was putting them in my purse," Mougin says, smiling. "I didn't even know that I couldn't bring shampoo and toothpaste. Oh well, it's my fault for not paying attention."

Some passengers make snide remarks or complain about the rules. And then there's that 1 percent "who like to make a scene," Torrez says.

On this day, only a few passengers raise their voices and complain.

In the past, though, Torrez has been yelled at and shoved. He's even had shoes thrown at him.

"One man had to take his shoes off and was upset that we didn't provide booties for him," Torrez said. "He said his feet would get dirty."

He also has had police escort drunken people out of security, and some passengers even fight with each other.

"I try to put myself in their shoes and try to diffuse the situation," Torrez said. "But I can tell there's a point that some people reach where they're not going to back down."

Other passions

It's just past lunchtime, and most people in the working world are settling in for a busy afternoon.

The security screeners from the early shift, though, are ready to call it a day.

"Thank God we did a good job and nothing happened," Rodriguez said. "Now we can go home and rest."

From here, some will pick up their kids from school or head straight home. Others will run errands or enjoy a full afternoon of sunshine.

Many screeners say one of the prime perks of the job is the hours. Yes, they have to get up really early in the morning, at a time some night owls are going to bed.

But working the early shift gives them time to pursue other passions.

It means Rodriguez can spend time with her children in the afternoons.

It means Papp can work on a remodeling project, paint or play the guitar.

And it means Shaeffer can fix dinner for his wife before she gets home from work.

After a nap, of course.

"I try to stay awake long enough to read the funnies," he says, grinning. "But usually I don't make it that long. I'm usually pretty beat."

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.