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Screener shortages causing problems at some big airports
WASHINGTON (AP) — Airport screening jobs are turning over faster than expected at some of the busiest airports and the government isn't moving fast enough to fill them, a congressional investigator and airport officials told lawmakers Thursday.

The staffing shortages are creating security vulnerabilities and longer waits for passengers, they told the House aviation subcommittee.

The turnover of Transportation Security Administration screeners averages 14% a year but is as high as 36% at very large airports, according to Cathleen Berrick, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the General Accounting Office. She testified that recent interviews revealed 11 of the 15 busiest airports didn't have enough screeners.

The GAO said low pay and undesirable hours are reasons why part-time jobs go unfilled.

One federal security director told the GAO that the delay in filling vacant jobs made it hard to improve screeners' performance and "contributed to screener complacency because screeners were aware that they were unlikely to be terminated due to staffing shortages," Berrick's written testimony said.

TSA headquarters works with a recruiting contractor to hire screeners. The airport security directors told the GAO they want more say in the hiring process.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said the agency is getting the local airport security directors more involved in the hiring process.

Rep. John Mica, the subcommittee chairman, said TSA is not spending enough on labor-saving technology and has cumbersome hiring and training practices.

"TSA created a monolithic bureaucracy that has shown an inability to adapt and keep pace with the ever-changing demands of the aviation industry," said Mica, R-Fla.

But Rep. James Oberstar, D-Wis., said Congress set an arbitrarily low limit on the number of full-time screeners who could be hired.

"TSA has been handicapped by the ill-advised cap of 45,000 full-time screeners imposed by the Appropriations Committee, a cap imposed without any basis for determining that 45,000 was the right number," Oberstar said.

Berrick reported that the TSA is trying to improve its work force planning. Among the changes: hiring part-time workers to fill in during the busiest shifts.

The agency has deployed a national screening force — 700 screeners who travel to airports to temporarily fill staff shortages.

Separately Thursday, a chorus of privacy advocates criticized the TSA's proposed passenger screening project. Their criticisms were based on a GAO report that said more work needs to be done to protect privacy and security of the program, which would use personal information to assign threat levels to all airline passengers.

The report could delay the program. Congress said the TSA couldn't spend money on implementing it until the GAO confirmed that the system would actually identify suspected terrorists and would protect people's privacy.

Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who asked for the report, said the broad implementation of the system should be postponed until Congress's concerns were addressed.

"The stakes are too high to rush forward with such an underdeveloped and risky program," Byrd said in a statement.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and privacy program, said the system would cost the travel industry as much as $1 billion to adapt its technology to the government's needs.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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