Aviation Security:

Slow Progress in Addressing Long-Standing Screener Performance Problems

T-RCED-00-125: Published: Mar 16, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2000.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed airport screeners' role in enforcing aviation security, focusing on: (1) the causes of screener performance problems in detecting threat objects; (2) the status of efforts being made by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address these causes; and (3) the screening practices in five other countries as compared with the United States.

GAO noted that: (1) two important causes for the screeners' performance problems are the rapid turnover among screeners and human factors issues involved in their work; (2) turnover exceeds 100 percent a year at most large airports and at one airport has topped 400 percent, leaving few screeners with much experience at the checkpoints; (3) the main reason for this turnover is the low wages and few benefits screeners receive; (4) the human factors issues have not been addressed sufficiently; (5) FAA has several interrelated initiatives underway to address the causes of the screeners' performance problems, including establishing a screening company certification program and a system for the automated monitoring of screeners' performance, and has established goals for improving performance; (6) however, these initiatives have not been fully implemented and are behind schedule; (7) other countries GAO visited conduct their checkpoint screening differently; (8) these operations include: (a) conducting routine pat-downs of some passengers; (b) requiring screeners to have more extensive qualifications and to meet higher standards; (c) paying screeners more and providing benefits; and (d) placing the responsibility for screening with airports or the government instead of with air carriers; (9) the five countries GAO visited had significantly lower screener turnover and may have better screener performance--one country's screeners detected over twice as many objects in a joint screener testing program it conducted with the FAA; (10) it must be recognized that the screeners' performance problems do not fall solely on FAA's shoulders; (11) the responsibility for certain conditions more appropriately rests with the air carriers and screening companies; (12) nevertheless, FAA does have leadership responsibility for aviation security, and it will be up to the agency to provide the guidance and motivation for improving the performance of screeners; (13) the actions FAA has underway are strong steps in the right direction and, when fully implemented, may provide the needed improvement; (14) it is critical that Congress maintain vigilant oversight of FAA's efforts to ensure that it implements these actions in a timely manner and achieves its performance improvement goals; and (15) if performance improvements are not achieved, FAA and Congress may need to consider other alternatives--such as some of the practices being used by other countries--to improve the screeners' performance.