Aviation Security:

Long-Standing Problems Impair Airport Screeners' Performance

RCED-00-75: Published: Jun 28, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the effectiveness of screening checkpoints at airports, focusing on the: (1) causes of screeners' problems in detecting dangerous objects and the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address these problems; and (2) screening practices of selected foreign countries and the potential for using these practices to help improve screeners' performance in the United States.

GAO noted that: (1) long-standing problems combine to reduce screeners' effectiveness in detecting dangerous objects, most notably: (a) the rapid turnover of screener personnel--often above 100 percent a year at large airports and, in at least one recent instance, above 400 percent a year; and (b) human factors conditions that have for years affected screeners' hiring, training, and working environment; (2) a key factor in the rapid turnover is the low wages screeners receive; (3) screeners are often paid the minimum wage or close to it and can often earn more at airport fast-food restaurants; (4) FAA is pursuing several initiatives to improve the hiring, training, and testing of screeners, to increase their alertness and more closely monitor their performance, and to certify the security companies that air carriers retain to staff screening checkpoints; (5) however, most of these efforts are behind schedule; (6) FAA has established performance improvement goals for screeners, but it has not: (a) completed an integrated plan to tie its various efforts to improve screeners' performance to the achievement of its goals; and (b) adequately measured its progress in achieving its goals for improving screeners' performance; (7) passenger screening procedures in the countries GAO visited are similar to those in the United States; (8) passengers walk through metal detectors at airport checkpoints and have their carry-on baggage scanned by X-ray machines or physically searched by screeners; (9) but there are also some differences; (10) for example, in most countries, screeners must undergo more extensive training, screeners receive higher wages and better benefits, and screening responsibility rests with the government or the airport, not with the air carriers as it does in the United States; (11) among the five countries GAO visited--Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom--the turnover rate for screeners was lower--about 50 percent a year or less--and in a joint test conducted by FAA and one of these countries, screeners' performance was higher; (12) however, the feasibility of applying these countries' practices to screening operations in the United States cannot be readily determined; and (13) given the uncertainty and the fact that FAA has already begun several efforts to improve screeners' performance, GAO is not making recommendations to revise current screening practices in the United States.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA developed a Passenger Screening Checkpoint Integrated Plan that is a working document. The Associate Administrator for Civil Aviation Security approved the plan on September 22, 2000. The plan is reviewed annually and adjusted as security situations dictate.

    Recommendation: To better implement FAA's efforts to improve screeners' performance and to provide a valid basis for evaluating FAA's progress in achieving its performance goals for screeners, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to require that FAA's integrated checkpoint screening management plan, which ties together the various initiatives for improving screeners' performance, be promptly completed, implemented, continuously monitored and updated, and periodically evaluated for effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has established a goal that encompasses multiple detection rates. However, because detection rates are sensitive security information protected under 14 CFR Part 191, neither the targets nor trend data are suitable for a public document such as the DOT Annual Performance Plan and Report where GPRA goals are reported. Therefore, the public version of the goal will continue to be a general statement that encompasses multiple rates.

    Recommendation: To better implement FAA's efforts to improve screeners' performance and to provide a valid basis for evaluating FAA's progress in achieving its performance goals for screeners, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to establish separate goals for the detection of standard test objects and improvised explosive devices concealed in carry-on baggage for reporting under the Government Performance and Results Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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