It's been over a decade since I worked as a screener, and things have changed since 9/11, or so I hear. It may be that the process is less mind numbing, that the candidates are better, that the environment isn't geared to make you not care. I expect not. Note that the authority in charge is really called the TSA, so mentally think TSA when you see FAA. Ten years changes some things. When I graduated I needed a job that paid well, required no experience, and would let me get as many hours as my teen body could withstand. I got it all, as well as a lesson on airport security.
Form a line
Screeners, as we were called, were the "line of defense" against those who would hijack planes. I know this because it was on the first film strip they showed us during training. Not a video. Not a film in a normal projector. Not even a slide. It was a film strip, and by turning the advance arrow, the strip curled downward one frame at a time through the projector. The next frame showed "The enemy." These days the enemy would wear a rag on his head and have a swarthy look, but the company for which I worked, we'll call it ASC (for airport security company) had making profit as an airport security company down cold, and so it displayed the real enemy of screeners - the FAA test items.
FAA Test items are supposed to have the same pattern on the X-Ray machine as the items you are really after. They included a starter pistol with a plugged barrel, a "bomb" that consists of an old style alarm clock, three pieces of PVC pipe and two lead wires, a knife encased in three inch thick plastic, and a couple more I have forgotten. The FAA test items must set off any metal detector. They must also, more importantly, be detected by screeners. On the slide I looked at the items that would become my second worst enemy on the job.
The worst enemy is boredom. Airport screening is a horrible job. The qualifications for it are minimal. You must be fingerprinted (I was) and pass a background check (I did), but other than that, there are no real requirements. You don't even need a command of the English language, as EJ, and his brother DJ, proved so often. I won't go into the race of candidates here because you might mistakenly think that their pitiful performance here was racially driven. It wasn't. We had oxygen thieves of every skin color.
The point of the training class is simple - to teach you to identify the FAA test items on the x ray machine. Pat downs, hand wands, those sort of things were covered in a cursory manner. Pat downs, incidentally, had their own picture, illustrating that a man cupping a woman's breast served no purpose for security measures. The rest of the days were spent on the test items. We were drilled frame by frame, chanting in unison -
This went on for hours, then the tests became "tricky". The film strip was inserted backwards, and we did it again. We lost two trainees that first run, two men who insisted that the slide they had just looked at left to right no longer contained the bomb when viewed right to left. Then they ran the strip upside down. When we concluded, it was time to be tested.
Testing is intended by the FAA to make sure that only the qualified screeners make it onto the floor and out to the gate. In reality, testing is all about the company. The goal of the test is to make sure the screeners can spot the FAA test items, because at any time the FAA might send people to test the screeners. When they do, they pass a test item through the x-ray machine. If it isn't caught, the screener is fired. More importantly, the company is fined.
Now, about the turnover - In any such job, you have a high "rotation factor", as they put it. So high, in fact, that there is enormous pressure to put new recruits out the door, regardless of how badly they flub. That this is in direct contradiction of the company's main goal is something that was recognized, but never spoken. We began our test, somewhat written, followed by pictures, in which we had to identify the threat (if any). I completed my test, turned it in, and was directed back to my seat with no indication if I had passed or failed.
Others completed, and approached the instructor. Again they returned to their seats. Then one young man got up. He approached the instructor, who looked over the test. He looked back at the student, and handed him back the test. Without a word, the man returned to his seat, where he changed some answers and returned. Again, the test was given back to him. Again, he brought it back. Now, it was lunch time, and we retreated outside to eat lunch. Inside the classroom a group of five students remained. The teacher fired up the film strip.
"This is what a Bomb looks like, Reginald"
"Does anyone see the Knife in this picture, Sam?"
"How about the gun here. Everyone see the gun, right here?"
After lunch, we were surprised to learn that everyone but Sam had passed. We were issued orange stickers for our badges and sent out to begin protecting the world.
Get in Line
While you might think that security screeners are the most hated people at the airport, that wasn't true in my experience. The honest truth was that everyone hated everyone else, but there was definitely a ranking to the process. At the top are the pilots, who detest everything about the airport. Below them are the flight crew, also known as stewardesses. At the time when I was a screener, both weight and appearance rules were still in force, so a flight attendant was usually a jiggly blond with curves and angles in all the right places. Below the flight crew were the airline employees, and below them, passengers. The passengers ranked higher than food service people, but the food service people were still higher than the security screeners (me). Below the security screeners were skycaps, and below them, the luggage transport people. It was the matter of much debate if the homeless people who lived in the terminal were ranked higher or lower than the luggage crew.
So low on the ladder were we that we weren't allowed to eat lunch where we could be seen. A stairwell in the east side of the terminal was a permitted eating area, though most of us caught a ride on the airport tram and ate while we rode. EJ and DJ ate the same lunch every day - a rice and meat slurry that was heavily spiced with ginger and looked like it had been regurgitated at least twice. Midnight shift, meat slurry. Morning shift? meat slurry. I could barely stand the smell, but they devoured it, scooping it up with their fingers, slurping them clean.
There was one group in particular who truly despised security screeners though - The supervisors. Supervisors, recognizable by their orange vests, are responsible for the security station. Your screw up is theirs. To become a super you needed to develop time honored skills at identifying threats. No, not really. The real requirement was that you needed to last at least three months on the line. Not many made it. Supers hated orange badgers worse than anyone else, because an orange badger was a trainee, unqualified to perform any action on their own. The super had to stand at the metal detector (the worst possible post) along with the trainee, the super had to search bags, and if an oranger got fired for missing an item, his super would be taking a walk with him.
Angie (name changed to protect the bitchy), was my normal super. Angie was a chain smoker of a type I had never encountered before. There were four gates at the terminal where I worked. Before Angie entered the building, she would smoke a cigarette. With its last puff she would enter the office to get her assignment, and walk twenty yards to A gate, where she would have a smoke. Dropping the lit cigarette at the sliding door, she would walk to B gate, where she would smoke again. After a couple of cigarettes at B she would walk to C gate and again, light up. Now, from C to the E gate (I do not know what happened to D) it was a very long walk, and could only be reached inside. Each morning Angela would begin walking from C to E and upon arrival, she would be shaking.
"Good morning, Angela", I would say each morning as she stalked past.
"Shut the fuck up, puck," she'd snarl as she limped outside. Her hands would tremble horribly, so bad she would burn herself with the lighter until after her first cigarette. Three cigarettes later, she would come inside and establish her pattern of peering at the screen while she waited for her next smoke break. I passed my orange stage one Thursday on a 3:30 am shift with Angie and we celebrated it by her leaving to go smoke again. From that point on, she was rarely at the point for more than five minutes, which left me with EJ and DJ and an ever changing cast of new suckers, I mean employees. EJ and DJ were brothers, but their names contained neither Es, Js or Ds as best I can tell. A good screener points out things that make people fail. EJ never pointed out the problems, probably because he couldn't speak English. A couple months in I met the oldest screener at the company, and was shocked to realize it was his muddled English that EJ and DJ were imitating with the few words they spoke.
Crossing the Line
One morning as I arrived, Angie was waiting at the checkpoint.
"We had a miss on the line", she said. I stared at her blankly.
"A miss, goddammit." I looked around and realized that everyone was staring at the ground. I still didn't understand, but I nodded and she continued, "They're sending Mike." This name rang a bell, and as I tried to place it, Will leaned over and said "The trainer."
A miss means that the FAA tested someone, and they failed. It meant someone went home that day, fired. More importantly, it meant that ASC had been fined for the miss, and that was what had everyone on edge. Manure placed on a sharp angled slope will yield to gravity, and I was firmly planted in a downward direction of said slope.
Mike didn't make it to our station until 4:00, thirty minutes before I was scheduled to be off. When he arrived, it was with a wide grin on his face. He resembled a shark with dentures when he smiled. It always made me uncomfortable when anyone at ASC smiled, because it usually meant that they were happy. I knew from experience that the only thing that made ASC employees happy was ruining someone else's day.
"Did you know that A station, they don't have the slightest idea what a gun looks like? I'm here to help you figure out what a gun looks like. When I leave this station, you will all know what a gun looks like, you will know it because I will shove it up your ass if you miss a gun." That is where things went downhill.
At the time the airline flights had a huge gap between when the 2:15 from India arrived and when the 6:00 came in. I don't recall what the 6:00 flight was because the 2:15 was the one that got all the attention. It was the 2:15 where passengers would take a dump in the middle of the terminal after getting off. It was the 2:15 where people got off carrying fourteen inch knives. It was the 2:15 where passengers BIT screeners. I hated that flight, but I would have given anything for another flight from India to arrive, because for the next twenty minutes, Mike walked about ranting about the gun. He ran it through the machine over and over, drilling each of us on it.
"How do you know it's a gun?" He asked me.
"it looks like one," I said, and was immediately pounded on the back.
"Goddamn right it does. You get over here," yelled Mike to Will.
"How do you know it's a gun?"
"I look for the outline of the cartridge and the..." Will started.
"The barrel you can see right here," Will continued, oblivious to his pending doom.
"What the hell are you talking about? That's not how you find this gun"
"No sir. It's how you find any gun, sir," said Will. I knew right then that this was a disaster.
"Any gun? Any gun? I don't give a fuck about any gun, dipshit. I care about this gun. The FAA will not test you with another gun. The FAA will never put any gun but this one in the machine. I don't care if you are a fucking gun nut who can tell the caliber by sniffing the barrel, you look for this gun. THIS ONE." Mike strode to the test bag and dumped it out at the feet of the metal detector, sending the machine into a frenzy.
"THIS bomb. This knife. I don't care if you miss a goddamn bazooka and some son of a bitch cuts your throat with a knife you let through as long as you find THIS GUN."
"But we're supposed to find," Will insisted.
"You find what I trained you to find. The other shit doesn't get taken out of my paycheck when you miss it," said Mike. I looked at my watch and realized it was 4:30. Our replacement shift was standing at a distance and Mike was waiting for them as they approached.
"Did you know that here at E station they don't know what a gun looks like?" I heard as we walked away.
Out of Line
The hours a screener works are long and monotonous. In the middle of the night on a distant gate there is nothing to do but talk, and if you were paired with an east African who speaks no English, there's even less to do. I took turns walking through the metal detector carrying the test items. By the end of my time at ASC I could walk through carrying any of them without setting off the detector.
If you've never spent any quality time in an airport, consider yourself lucky. In Texas the airports have massive air conditioners. In August they labored day and night to keep the air mildly cool. One fine day in late January I arrived to find the insides of the terminal doors frosted, the airconditioners full on. The air outside was a balmy thirty, and it felt good compared to the temperature inside. The airline refused to acknowledge anything was wrong. The security company saw it as a way to make money. Security screeners pay for uniforms, and most of us had passed on the option to rent a coat with the corporate insignia. In the frozen terminal we shivered. Our paper thin uniforms were perfect for the blast furnace heat of August.
"Get your jackets. Sign the stub," said the Super.
"I don't need a jacket," I said. I didn't want to pay for a coat for the next months that I would never use. A few hours into the shift I could no longer feel my fingers. I spent lunch letting the freezing rain outside warm me up. When I went home, the airline had finally called in maintenance to turn the air conditioners off. It appears that when the coffee began to freeze, they finally realized things were slightly out of hand.
EJ had a nasty sense of humor, and on the last night I finally figured out his secret. A penny, tapped on the side of the X-Ray machine, would trigger the metal detector. I knew that flexing the sheet metal panel on the machine would do this, I had no idea a simple penny would do so. From his perch behind the machine, EJ would cause people to fail over and over until they had to be wand searched or patted down. DJ no doubt did the same thing. Near impossible to prove, and easy to deny, I could only guess at his reasons for doing it.
End of Line
I would like to say I flamed out and left scorched earth behind, but I did not. I had worked for nearly four months, sometimes fourteen hours a day (or more) and amassed plenty of savings for college, so one morning I checked the box for "intent to leave." My last day I was sent to relieve someone at E, and when I arrived, a familiar face greeted me. Mike stood at the metal detector, his face purple.
"Get your ass on the detector boy, I'm running the machine," he said.
"Shut that hole in your head!" Mike yelled.
Later that day I learned that Mike had come down to instruct due to another miss. This was actually the fourth miss in a month, and there were rumors of a major fine, to be compensated for by firing all the supervisors. Mike and Angie had an argument which ended with him ordering her to run the metal detector. She made it forty five minutes before she walked outside to smoke. Angie was fired on the spot for deserting her post.
EJ and DJ, who had never said a word of English in my presence, and received their morning directions from a food services worker who would read the schedule, walked out the door with her. This left Mike alone at the station. This is a violation of FAA guidelines, as you need at least two screeners at all stations, but he didn't close the terminal, or even notify anyone. That would have meant a fine for the company, perhaps even worse than a miss. At the end of the day I walked away.
When I enter an airport now, I look at the signs that say "Security" with an arrow, and I believe the arrow is pointing to the blank space underneath the signs, because I've seen the line of protection. I've been it. You decide for yourself how safe we are.