Rules Will Allow Airport Screeners to Remain in Jobs By DAVID FIRESTONE
After stoking high expectations that the federal takeover of airport security would lead to a new breed of airport security screener, one who was better educated and more qualified to assume a position of increased responsibility, the Department of Transportation has decided not to impose rules that would displace thousands of current screeners.
Most significantly, the department will not insist that screeners be high school graduates, a requirement that would have disqualified a quarter of the present work force of 28,000.
As recently as Dec. 20, the department said in a news release that "screeners must be U.S. citizens, have a high school diploma and pass a standardized examination."
But the Transportation Security Administration, the new agency created to supervise aviation security, announced a few days ago that it would allow a year of any similar work experience in lieu of a high school diploma.
The decision has dismayed advocates of tighter airport security, including groups representing flight attendants and business travelers, who had expressed hope that federalization would lead to an upgraded work force.
"We're dealing with very sophisticated and trained individuals who are trying to blow up our commercial aircraft," said James E. Hall, until recently the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "These screeners are going to be an important line of defense, and it seems to me we should have higher educational standards for them. If all we're doing is recycling the existing screeners, why have we made this tremendous investment in creating a federal work force? It sends the wrong message."
Of particular concern to such critics is the agency's position that it hopes to retain many screeners who lack diplomas. Along with the decision to expedite the naturalization process for screeners who will lose their jobs if they do not become citizens, the relaxed education requirement suggests that the government hopes to minimize the turnover among the screeners when they become federal employees next November.
The guidelines published by the agency say that applicants for screening jobs must have a diploma or "one year of any type of work experience that demonstrates the applicant's ability to perform the work of the position." The agency has not said what kind of work experience would qualify, but a spokesman said it would apply to screeners who have been on the job for a year.
"The idea is to allow current screeners who would otherwise qualify but may not have high school diplomas to be eligible, so they do not get left behind," said Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the security administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation. "Having a year of experience on the job is a valuable asset, and many of those people are perfectly qualified, even if they don't have a diploma."
But critics say the point of the new federal law was to upgrade the work force, not to retain the current workers, who have drawn fire in recent months for slipshod performance.
Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents many large corporate buyers of travel services, said passengers have the right to expect a basic educational level from the screeners, given their importance in protecting aircraft from terrorists.
"This job is more than just looking at an X-ray screen — it's about looking at people and interpreting their answers to questions and making judgments," Mr. Mitchell said. "As much as anything here, we have to restore the confidence of the American people and the integrity of the aviation system, and I think most people would view the lack of a high school diploma with some alarm."
The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest flight attendants union, has also protested the lack of an education requirement, saying it fears the government will hire too many of the same screeners who allowed terrorists on the planes in the first place.
Security screeners now working for private companies are already required by the Federal Aviation Administration to speak, read and write English, and to demonstrate their ability to operate X-ray equipment and conduct physical searches of passengers. Transportation agency officials say the new law toughens the requirements with strong federal supervision of screeners, a criminal background check, and a passing grade on a new test that will measure aptitude, ability to deal with the public and English proficiency.
Those requirements will apply to all new screeners hired after February, when the security agency takes over responsibility for airport screening. Existing screeners may stay on the job, but by November 2002, they will have to reapply for their jobs and be hired by the federal government under the new rules.
Transportation officials also said this month that they planned to work with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to find ways to expedite the citizenship process for screeners with good work records. They also plan to increase the pay of screeners, which until recently had been at minimum-wage levels, and to give a preference to hiring displaced aviation workers.
Advocates for the current screeners agreed with the agency's decision that experience, an aptitude test and a background check are more important than a high school diploma. Because of the high turnover in low-paying private screener jobs up to now, anyone who has remained in the job for a year has the kind of experience that the federal government will prize, they say.
"Anyone who can go through the training and pass the new tests is clearly qualified for the job, whatever their educational level," said Jono Schaffer, director of security organizing for the Service Employees International Union, which represents screeners in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "The only important requirement is whether they can perform the duties of the job."
In the new law, Congress gave the under secretary of transportation for security flexibility in interpreting the educational requirement. The law says that federal screeners must have a diploma "or experience that the under secretary has determined to be sufficient for individual to perform the duties of the position." Those were minimum requirements, however; the agency could have insisted on a diploma, but instead chose to accept a year of comparable work experience.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas and one of the principal authors of the new security law, said Congress decided it was too limiting to restrict screeners to being high school graduates.
"We know there are people who have dropped out of high school who still have the basic intelligence to do that job," Ms. Hutchison said. "The military service doesn't require a high school diploma, and we think the Transportation Department is also capable of making judgment calls on a person's background. You don't want to judge someone in a cookie-cutter way if they have a good work record."
The private security industry, which lobbied hard against the new law, agrees with that assessment. Kenneth P. Quinn, counsel for an association of the private airline security companies who will turn over their responsibilities to the government next year, said the repetitive nature of the screening jobs is often not a good fit for people with higher educational backgrounds.
"There's no demonstrable nexus between advanced educational degrees of any kind and the ability to perform at a high level as a screener," Mr. Quinn said. "In fact, the opposite is often true."
But many security experts say the government should begin to have higher expectations of its screeners, giving them more responsibility than just robotically working the checkpoint machines.
"What we really need are people who understand how terrorists work, who can spot a false passport, who can ask the right questions of the right people," said Isaac Yeffet, former director of general security for El Al Airlines and now a private security consultant in Cliffside Park, N.J. "Every screener is holding on his shoulders a 747 full of passengers. It is impossible to imagine that they would have dropped out of high school."