A year after an all-out hiring drive to take over security at the nation's airports, the government announced Wednesday that it will cut 6,000 jobs, or 11% of the 55,600 federal screeners now checking passengers and their bags.
The Transportation Security Administration's decision came after stiff criticism from key lawmakers that the agency wasted hundreds of millions of dollars by hiring too many people in a chaotic scramble to meet congressional deadlines.
"America has too much riding on TSA to allow it to waste money and turn into a bloated federal bureaucracy," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). "Current staffing levels are out of hand, and in many airports, dozens of TSA employees are screening handfuls of passengers."
Some detractors had taken to joking that TSA's initials meant "thousands standing around." Separately, audit reports and interviews with government investigators suggest that TSA may have misspent as much as $250 million as it took over airport security last year, mainly by failing to rein in contractors' expenses. The agency denies any mismanagement.
On Wednesday, TSA head James M. Loy called the cuts "right-sizing," not down-sizing.
"While we still live in a dangerous world, it also is time to assess our workplace requirements in relation to budget realities," Loy said. "This means looking at the level of screener staffing at every airport."
Security will not be diminished, Loy pledged, but he said he is concerned that some passengers may have to wait longer in line and that remaining screeners might be demoralized.
In Southern California, Los Angeles International will lose 154 screeners, or just more than 5% of its workforce of 2,849. LAX has far more screeners than any other airport in the country because it has the highest number of travelers whose trips originate there. John Wayne Airport in Orange County will lose 45 of 330 screeners, or 14% of its force.
Long Beach Airport, which handles less airline traffic than the other two, will take proportionally the hardest hit, losing more than half its 163 screeners.
TSA will cut 3,000 jobs by May 31 and another 3,000 by the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30. A freeze has been placed on administrative hiring.
Loy said the new staffing levels were based on analysis of each airport's passenger flows, both at peak and low volume, and other factors, such as the number of checkpoints. When the government took over passenger screening last year, it lacked any direct experience at providing the service, and it had to hire additional employees for the new task of inspecting checked luggage.
While TSA clearly hired more screeners than it now needs, it's also the case that fewer people are flying, meaning less work for screeners.
"Passenger traffic certainly isn't stretching the resources of airports these days," said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition. He predicted that passengers would not be inconvenienced by the cuts.
When fully phased in, the staffing reductions are expected to save $288 million out of an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Nationally, screeners earn an average of $13 to $14 an hour, plus benefits.
A number of airports will get increased staff because TSA underestimated the volume of passengers and bags. Among them is the Orlando, Fla., airport, which will gain 86 screeners, bringing its total work force to 1,268.
The screener layoffs are certain to roil a work force that is already unhappy over unpredictable hours, missed paychecks and poor relations with management. Loy has sought to block union efforts to organize the screeners.
TSA announced other changes Wednesday. Police will no longer be stationed round-the-clock at every passenger checkpoint as of May 31, but instead will be on patrol throughout the airport.
"Security will be strengthened, because officers will be seen by more passengers and will be able to do more surveillance," Loy said.
The government will launch two programs to help airlines and airports with security costs, he said.
Airlines will be able to tap into a $2.3-billion fund, providing they can document expenses and meet congressional limits on executive compensation.
A $1-billion program will help airports pay for moving bulky machines for detecting explosives from lobbies and installing them in conveyor systems that handle luggage. LAX, which handles 150,000 bags a day, is expected to apply for $195 million in financing.
The screener layoffs will add "to the overall morale problem within TSA," said security consultant Billie Vincent. "This is an organization that was formed in a few months against horrendous deadlines. Under the best of circumstances, they would have had morale problems."
Loy said he is eager to reassure screeners that most of them will keep their jobs. He said he expects about half of the job reduction goal to be met through normal turnover. Poor performance evaluations, legal problems or misbehavior on the job will determine who else is let go, he added.
Beginning today, teams from TSA headquarters in Washington will be dispatched to major airports, including LAX, to listen to screeners' concerns. "Our goal is a model workplace," Loy said.
Security consultant Vincent said he expects more staffing cuts in the future, particularly if TSA succeeds in automating cumbersome procedures now used for inspecting checked luggage by hand.
Currently, there are not enough automated scanners to check all bags, and a certain proportion are opened by hand and checked for traces of explosives.
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Airport screener layoffs
The federal Transportation Security Administration will be laying off 6,000 of its 55,600 federal security screeners by Sept. 30. How some major airports will be affected:
*--* Current After Airport screeners cuts % change JFK (New York) 1,793 1,397 -22 Hartsfield (Atlanta) 1,335 1,072 -20 Reagan National (Washington) 503 400 -20 Denver 1,043 846 -19 McCarran (Las Vegas) 983 834 -15 Miami 1,826 1,631 -11 O'Hare (Chicago) 2,204 2,034 -8 Los Angeles 2,849 2,695 -5 La Guardia (New York) 819 783 -4 San Francisco 1,278 1,278 0
Other California airports
*--* Current After Airport screeners cuts % change Long Beach 163 74 -55 Sacramento 355 243 -32 Fresno Yosemite 112 84 -25 San Jose Mineta 459 362 -21 Palm Springs 96 78 -19 Ontario 295 246 -17 John Wayne (Santa Ana) 330 285 -14 San Diego Lindbergh 630 578 -8 Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena 194 186 -4 Oakland 427 411 -4
Source: Transportation Security Administration
*San Francisco is in a pilot program using private screeners and will not be affected by the layoffs.