TOPICS > Nation

Safer Skies?

November 19, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: One year ago today, in response to the September 11 attacks, the president signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to harden the nation’s travel infrastructure against terrorists. Today, one of the law’s first deadlines– to have federal employees handle passenger security screening at all the country’s 429 commercial airports– was met.

More than 44,000 federal screeners are now in place, wearing TSA badges that identify them as part of the new federal Transportation Security Administration. They replace a mix of privately employed workers who were criticized as inattentive and poorly trained.

But TSA officials say a second December 31 deadline to scan all checked baggage with explosive detection machines will not be met.

For more on all this, we’re joined by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

NORMAN MINETA: Thanks for having me on.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, you’ve got these thousands of new workers out there. They all speak English. They all seem very attentive. They’re all very pleasant. How much better are they at their job in terms of preventing dangerous passengers or weapons?

NORMAN MINETA: Our promise is to have world-class security and world-class customer service. And so this new group of highly motivated, well trained screeners are really way above, I think, where we were before. And so I’m confident that we will not only have good screening, we will have good customer service, but there will be uniformity and consistency in terms of what they are going to be doing across the country.

MARGARET WARNER: I know that TSA has done some undercover testing just as the FAA used to do before. I guess what I’m asking here is how much better are they, how much fewer of the forbidden items are getting through?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, I think that we still have a number of things getting through, and that’s how I think efficient they are in being able to catch these people bringing things on. In the month of September alone, we had 224 lethal weapons that were confiscated by the screeners. So again, I think it’s because they are being trained very well. They’re highly motivated that they’re able to continue to find the attempt of these folks to try to bring weapons on board. But these are highly motivated, well trained people. And I’m very confident that we will continue doing good security and good customer service.

MARGARET WARNER: You did have this incident last week at the Miami Airport where I guess there’s been a complaint one screener was asleep and then when they checked the videotape, they found another screener had let people back through the exit lane. How do you monitor something like that? Do you all screen the videotapes regularly?

NORMAN MINETA: Not only do we screen the work of these screeners, but when something like that happens, there are disciplinary measures taken immediately. And in the case of the person, I believe, who was sleeping, they were let go immediately. So again, I think we have the tools from the testing, the assessing, the training to the point of having the enforcement powers to cut these people loose who don’t do their job properly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now today there was news, as I’m sure you know, of the arrest of more than 100 LaGuardia and Kennedy Airport employees who had lied on their application forms. Some had criminal records. I know that’s not directly under your Department, but how many holes are there still in the system like that, that passenger screening doesn’t catch?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, that’s Department of Justice that has to… that did initiate that in conjunction with the INS in terms of checking those employees at the airport, and there are probably people who work at the restaurants in the food courts and other employees….

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, these were people who as I understand it, had access to the cargo planes, the planes themselves. I mean they were airport workers behind the scenes. Is that the airports that hire these?

NORMAN MINETA: No, it could be then airlines themselves. It could be the catering services that service the airlines. It could be a number of private companies that are in the secure area that do that work, but again if they are not properly doing background work on them, then there are again… I think we can take action against the airport or the airlines themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as I understand it, there’s still no screening of passengers or bags who go on private planes, even large corporate planes. And there’s no screening, is that right, on even the large– very large– cargo planes, say, Fed-Ex planes, big planes like that. Is that still the case?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, there is screening in the sense that we have in the cargo, for the cargo carriers what is known as the known shipper program. These are the companies that do business regularly with Fed- Ex, where Fed-Ex backs up their trucks, I don’t know, let’s say to Land’s End and then transports that to the airport and then puts it on their airplane to be delivered to customers across the country.

So because of the known shipper program, we’re confident that there are… that even though we don’t physically look at the… search the box itself, but because of the known shipper program we’re confident that the cargo is secure.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there any plans to, for instance, start screening passengers and baggage on private or corporate planes?

NORMAN MINETA: Well we don’t do it on the general aviation aircraft or private planes. On charters they have the same applicable rules as are on passenger aircraft depending upon the size of the aircraft.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what about trains? The last time I went on a train and there was no screening at all of bags or passengers.

NORMAN MINETA: All right. Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, all of the security for all modes was given to the Transportation Security Administration for the first time as a federal responsibility. So though the Aviation and Transportation Security Act focused primarily on aviation, they said on all other modes to do them as soon as possible. Well, we’ve been working concurrently to increase security at other modes, and so railroads and buses will also be included but we don’t have complete plans for them yet.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So now back to the passenger planes, there was this December 31 deadline to have these explosive detection machines checking all the checked bags. I gather that you were going to have a waiver of what — a couple dozen or more airports that won’t make that? And I guess my question is why?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, because in many instances where you have this mini-size van machine that weighs about three tons, where to place those machines at these airports was a very… is an engineering and construction issue. And so we hope now that with 18 to 20 airports we will… except for 18 or 20 airports– we will meet the December 31 deadline but even on those 18 to 20 we hope to have them done by the 30th of June.

MARGARET WARNER: In the meantime you’re going to hand check these bags.

NORMAN MINETA: That’s correct. There’s hand check. There’s canine. There’s electronic explosive detection tracer machines, and there’s manual search as well that we can utilize plus positive bag match with passengers.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that going to cause a lot of delays, all that hand checking? I gather it takes eight or 10 minutes a bag.

NORMAN MINETA: I don’t believe so. It will be longer on a per-bag basis, but we hope to have enough people to be able to make sure that we don’t have long lines. And one of the things that we’re trying to also do is to make sure that passengers have a good education about what they should be doing during this heavily traveled holiday season as to how to be best prepared to go through the airport security.

MARGARET WARNER: And reduce the hassles.

NORMAN MINETA: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

NORMAN MINETA: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being with us.