A Year of Government Effort Yields Safer Skies

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Flying is safer now.

National guards with machine guns, thousands of new detection machines, a new federal agency, heightened training requirements for baggage screeners, and one year later, flying is safer.

To federalize airport security, the Transportation Department established a new agency, the Transportation Security Administration.

When the new agency was formed, there were 15 workers. Today, there are 800 people working in the headquarters alone.

"You're talking about starting up an entire agency from scratch," said David Steigman, a spokesperson for the new agency. "We've got a ways to go, but we're moving ahead fast, hard-charging and working around the clock."

The Transportation Security Administration has provided "improved and heightened" standards for baggage screeners nationwide, Steigman said.

The new security is certainly an improvement, but it has downsides as well, said UC Berkeley junior Davin Sanders. Sanders took flights from Burbank to Sacramento both before and after Sept. 11.

"The security definitely beefed up," Sanders said. "(But) I felt like I was doing something wrong, just for being me."

Some things, such as nail clippers with nail files, were not allowed on the plane. But Sanders said there are numerous other, more dangerous things still allowed.

"I didn't feel safer, but I felt uncomfortable," he said.

The San Francisco International Airport has 13 of the massive, new explosive detection machines deployed by the Transportation Security Administration, and 11 more are on the way.

These are some of the more than 1,000 new detectors on order nationwide, of which 240 have already been installed. In addition to these machines, more than 1,300 explosive trace detectors are on their way to airports across the country.

"For the traveling public, it's basically as safe as it can be right now," said Michael McCaron, a spokesperson for San Francisco International Airport.

The Transportation Security Administration faced the task of hiring and deploying 30,000 new screeners by mid-November for the nation's 429 airports. By the turn of the year, 22,000 screeners were already in place.

The new screeners will have 44 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of on-the-job training under their belts. They all must be U.S. citizens, either with high school diplomas or more than one year's experience as a screener.

Five airports have petitioned to retain private security contractors for a two-year trial period.

The San Francisco airport is among these and will be watched closely to see if private-security contracting is still a viable option.

"We're looked at as sort of a model for other airports to follow," McCaron said.

By keeping current screeners, (who are) already familiar with the the particulars of the San Francisco airport, the hope is to keep the process as safe and efficient as possible, he said.

"We thought it would be best for our customers," McCaron said, adding the security system will fall under the supervision of the new transportation agency for the duration of the two-year pilot program.

According to a new citizenship requirement for airport screeners in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, non-citizen screeners face losing their jobs to newly trained federal employees when the policy is implemented Nov. 19.

Approximately 80 percent of Bay Area airport screeners are immigrants with permanent legal residence. Over 75 percent of the 1,250 at the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports are Filipino.

But county supervisors in Alameda may ask to retain the screeners at Oakland International Airport, through a resolution of support.

Some groups, such as Filipinos for Affirmative Action, have voiced opposition to the citizenship requirement for screeners.

"The resolution feeds the timely debate on what will make airports safer: Proven loyalty and experience or U.S. citizenship?" the group asked.


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