Twenty-four U.S. airports in four weeks might be an easy gig for a rock-‘n’-roll star, but for me, it was like being on a hot LZ. Last month, I started on the East Coast and zigzagged across this great land from the Big Apple to the Needle in Seattle and back promoting my new book, “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts.”
My previous book tours have always seemed a bit like infantry combat – at least in terms of the wild pace and no sleep – but prior to the World Trade Center catastrophe, you could pretty much count on coming back. Since last September, that’s no longer a safe bet – and the more time you spend hanging around our nation’s airports, the less you’ll want to lay down your dough on a wager, let alone buckle up.
No kidding – in the past month, I found only one airport that passed inspection. And the weak link wasn’t the airports’ physical plants, but the so-called checkpoint security screeners.
Back before passenger planes became kamikazes, the airport-security companies worked directly for the airlines. With hiring policies determined by the bottom line, they went for cheap labor rather than sharp screeners. Post-9/11, when the Transportation Security Administration took over the task, it inherited a bunch of screeners who just don’t have the required skills or motivation. Recent covert TSA tests at 32 of the nation’s largest airports showed screeners failed to detect facsimile guns and bombs about 25 percent of the time. Their failure rate of finding explosives in luggage was 16 percent, meaning a 400-passenger jet could conceivably be filled with 64 terrorist bombs. And forget about the number of times screeners were caught asleep at their posts or using unplugged detectors.
As things now stand, this army of incompetents will soon serve as the main body of 45,000 government inspectors. Unfortunately, changing someone’s paycheck origin and handing that person better technology won’t instill competence any more than giving an amateur driver an Indy race car makes him or her Mario Andretti. And like all things federal, once the Civil Service concrete has settled, they’ll become unionized high-security risks. Untouchables.
The win-win solution would have been for the Federal Aviation Administration to set standards for the airlines and private companies to meet instead of federalizing what caused the problem in the first place. A higher bar and a handful of kick-butt inspectors would achieve greater safety for far less bucks. And private companies – unlike additional government departments, where everything always settles to the lowest common denominator – are free to improve, innovate and fire any slackers.
The one airport that did pass this old grunt’s security test was Denver International, our fifth-largest. From Bruce Baumgartner, the airport’s manager of aviation, to the lowest guy and gal on the security detail, these folks actually had their acts together. Baumgartner told me that DIA, considered by security whiz David Hunt “to be one of the safest airports in the world,” has one of the best track records in America.
Baumgartner says they’ve always been “proactive as far as security is concerned.” Each security lane checks and passes 4.1 passengers a minute. “DIA exceeds FAA standards, provides continuous training to our personnel, and we screen 100 percent of baggage.”
I was indeed impressed with DIA’s shiny new plant, but what really turned me on was the high quality of the airport’s security people. They were like Rangers, Marines or FedEx employees – competent, proud and dedicated. Every security person I met was on the stick, a total professional, all former military or police force who knew about security from the firing line up.
This STRAC outfit shows that you get what you pay for. Unlike most U.S. airports, DIA spends top dollar on its security team – at $15.46 an hour, they’re among the highest-paid airport-security folks in the world. Big dough in Denver, but dirt-cheap when we’re talking life or death.
Tom Ridge needs to hotfoot it to Colorado and personally check out this first-class operation. DIA clearly demonstrates how every U.S. airport should operate, and Mr. Ridge ought to camp there until he has the Rocky Mountain drill down pat.