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Airport Officials: Security Deadline to be Met - 2002-08-06

Airport security officials in the United States say they will meet a November deadline to replace private passenger screeners with federal employees. O'Hare Airport in Chicago is the latest to have the newly-hired federal screeners.

By November 19, passenger-screening duties at 429 airports in the United States are supposed to be federally hired and trained workers. As of this week, federal screeners are working at 16 airports. O'Hare is among the latest to have some federal screeners on the job. Airport security director Isaac Richardson says 200 screeners are being deployed at the facility's international terminal. "I am not going to go into internal security procedures and enhancements, but it will be obvious to both the novice and professional traveler that the security bar has been raised."

By November, more than 1,500 federalized passenger screeners will on the job at O'Hare. Each undergoes 44 hours of classroom training, then another 60-hours of closely supervised on-the-job training. The U.S. Congress ordered airport security changed from an airline responsibility to a federal one in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. Representative Mark Kirk of Illinois says the newly-hired screeners not only get better training, they also get more money. "We are intending to pay a lot more for security and to get a much higher-quality security screener online because this is a life or death function that these people perform," he says.

Officials say none of the 200 new federal screeners at O'Hare previously worked for any of the private security companies at the airport, although the private screeners can apply for the new jobs. Among the new hires is Roy Garcia, a former police chief from the Chicago suburbs. He will be a screener supervisor. "After 9/11 [the September 11th terrorist attacks], I just felt I needed to get more involved in be a part of the process," he says. "It may sound over-patriotic, but I am a patriotic person. I really believe that we should do something, and why let my years of experience go to waste when I have an opportunity to share it with a lot of people?"

By the end of the year, airports are also supposed to employ 24,000 new baggage screeners to examine passenger luggage for explosives and other contraband. Airports nationwide are also supposed to install about 1,100 large, explosive detection machines. Congressman Kirk says it is more likely that only 700 of the machines will be in place by the end of the year. That means more passenger baggage might have to be hand-searched. "We will meet the spirit of the law because we will be deploying new machines as fast as they come off the assembly line," says Mr. Kirk. "But in some cases you will still need a hand-check [of passenger baggage] because the machines will not be there in sufficient number."

Congressman Kirk says even if the new machines could be made quickly enough to meet the December installation deadline, some airports are having trouble finding space for them. Each is about the size of a mini-van. Weight is also an issue. The congressman says one airport has learned it will have to strengthen the floor of one terminal before installing the explosive-detection machines.