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Screeners’ Job: High Stakes, Tedium

Times Staff Writer

Daniel Rios isn’t lying about the lion.

He and his fellow screeners once had to escort a caged lion through the gantlet of X-ray machines and magnetometers at Los Angeles International Airport.

“A zoo handler came in with it,” said Rios, a screening supervisor for the federal Transportation Security Administration.

During an eight-hour shift this Thanksgiving weekend, a kickoff to the holiday rush, Rios and his crew at a Terminal 3 checkpoint encountered no four-legged travelers larger than a dog. But they sniffed out plenty of things prohibited on airliners: about 20 knives, 40 other sharp objects like scissors, a few torch-style cigarette lighters, half a dozen household tools and one disarmed M-16 round dangling from a keychain.

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“It was a pretty good day,” said Rios, 27. “Usually we find more tools. Once we found a chain saw in a bag.”

A screener’s daily grind is never entirely routine, not when the stakes are thwarting terrorism. It can be tedious, however, with the numbingly endless processions of passengers, many of whom make the same innocent mistakes over and over.

They forget to leave the pocketknife at home. They fail to remove the laptop from their bags for inspection. They neglect to take off their shoes before walking through the magnetometer, triggering the alarm with steel-shanked soles.

For the 2,200 screeners at LAX, the challenge is to fend off the boredom that comes with repetition and invites carelessness. An estimated 1.8 million passengers will have passed through the checkpoints over the 11-day Thanksgiving travel period that began Nov. 19, up 11% from last year.

“It does get monotonous,” Rios said as lines of passengers stretched from the six-lane checkpoint through the terminal doors.

“You have to treat every bag like it’s your first,” Rios said. “We constantly rotate to keep the alertness of the screener.”

That means screeners X-ray carry-ons for 30-minute stints, then switch to duties such as hand searches of bags and “wanding,” scanning a passenger with a metal-detector baton.

Each task risks complaints from rushed or privacy-minded travelers. A recent increase in pat-down searches has drawn protests from some passengers and civil libertarians.

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But the LAX screeners say just a small percentage of passengers gripe, which seemed to hold true Wednesday, among the busiest travel days of the year. At the most crowded checkpoints, waits exceeded an hour.

“I think it has to be done,” said Yvonne Lenart, 89, of Brentwood. She and her wheelchair were getting a top-to-bottom examination in a cubicle, because the chair would have set off the magnetometer. Her shoes were off, and she had to lift her arms to accommodate a screener’s wand.

“I admire them for going through all this,” Lenart said.

Passenger Angelo Lancelotti didn’t squawk when screening supervisor Kim Purvis pulled his suitcase from an explosives-detection machine and picked through its contents with rubber gloves. The bulky machine’s CT scan-type technology had spotted a suspicious “density” in the bag.

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“I’m glad I was here to unlock it,” said Lancelotti, 24, of Malibu.

After several minutes, Purvis cleared the suitcase. “It was the density of the shoes -- the thick soles,” she said.

As a screener of checked baggage at Terminal 3, Purvis has seen it all.

“We get toilets, kitchen sinks, lots of canned goods, bicycles ... motors,” she said. “Anything you can think of gets checked in.”

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Passengers who raise a fuss about prolonged searches are usually late for a plane, don’t like the way a screener repacked a searched bag or are rookie travelers unfamiliar with the drill.

And veteran trekkers sometimes become indignant when ordered to surrender those fancy torch lighters. The devices are barred because they fire up faster, and emit larger flames, than standard lighters.

“The big thing people will say is, ‘I’ve traveled every week, I’ve been around the world, and you’re the first person who’s told me this,’ ” Rios said.

Other passengers present delicate situations.

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“We have people who have sensitive things,” Rios said. “Vibrators, porn magazines, undergarments.”

He recalled a bag jammed with “fetish stuff -- leather restraints, masks, something that looked like it came out of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ ” The gear might have embarrassed the passenger, he said, but it was allowed on the plane.

Screeners are in pursuit of a “green” -- as in a Code Green, the discovery of a banned item.

Their skills are regularly tested by “mock images,” fake weapons that supervisors plant in satchels. Screeners who catch about 90% of the images are rewarded with extra days off. The perk is prized; the screeners’ starting pay here is less than $14 an hour, and some have complained about working long hours under difficult conditions.

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Purvis, who had been a waitress before becoming a screener, says she isn’t doing the job for the money. “I’m more fulfilled -- I have a purpose,” she said.

She and Rios said they are always thinking of a “big catch” -- snaring a would-be hijacker or bomber. Since they joined the agency in 2002, there have been occasions when they thought it might happen.

“The scariest thing we found was an electronic air freshener,” said Purvis, who had feared it was an improvised explosive device.

“It had a timer, liquid -- all the components of an IED,” she said. But it proved to be the harmless property of an air-freshener salesman.

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“Then there are the ‘grenades,’ ” Purvis, 39, said as she fed a load of bags into an explosives detector. “They have a lot of perfume bottles shaped like grenades, belt buckles made like grenades, souvenir grenades.”

All have to be inspected, and none are allowed in carry-ons. “When it comes through the X-ray machine, you can’t tell if it’s a replica,” Purvis said.

Unloaded guns may be stored in checked bags, but only if they are registered with the airline and locked in a container. Since February 2002, screeners nationwide have confiscated more than 2,200 guns, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman.

In September, screeners at LAX’s Terminal 1 retrieved an unauthorized gun from the bag of John Miller, the Los Angeles Police Department’s antiterrorism chief.

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Purvis said her screeners found an assault rifle in a bag that belonged to a passenger wanted on warrants. That was a trophy catch, she said.

Rios, a former technician for a mental health office, lists among his crew’s memorable catches a woman wearing a “butt pad” stuffed with marijuana.

Celebrity screenings are also a highlight, even when the A-listers are clean.

“I had to check Jamie Foxx’s bag,” Purvis said.

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“I’ve wanded Steve Nash,” Rios said of the Phoenix Suns basketball player.

While Rios X-rayed carry-ons, the screen showed the outlines of items he quickly identified as jackets, shoes and every manner of gadget.

“Here’s a laptop,” Rios said, tapping the screen. “See the components? The hard drive?.... Here you have a pair of glasses, a watch, a baby’s bottle.... This looks like scissors, but it’s actually an eyelash curler.... There’s an electric toothbrush.”

He found nothing to suggest “artful concealment” -- a willful attempt to smuggle something onto a plane.

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He didn’t find any fearsome creatures, either.

“People bring snakes, tarantulas,” Rios said. “No one’s been bitten yet.”


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