TSA workforce changes create rift with air marshals

A workforce shift could be in store at the Transportation Security Administration, as airport screeners become federal air marshals and current marshals leave to become Border Patrol agents.

TSA recently announced a series of initiatives affecting airport checkpoint procedures and the screening workforce. Some of the procedural changes - in particular one that will allow passengers to board airplanes carrying scissors with blades less than 4 inches long and tools less than 7 inches long - have generated a lot of attention.

But the workforce changes also are significant. For example, screening personnel are now called "transportation security officers," and have been given the GS-1802 law enforcement designation. The new designation is intended to open a career path into other law enforcement components at the Homeland Security Department.

Specifically, TSA and the Federal Air Marshal Service are setting aside a certain number of air marshal positions for screening personnel. The exact number has not yet been determined, said FAMS spokesman Dave Adams. FAMS is part of TSA.

An association that advocates on behalf of air marshals predicts that a growing number of marshals will leave and seek employment with the Border Patrol because they are not happy with management at the agency.

"A good number of air marshals come from the Border Patrol, and I think a number of them have opted to return there because they're not happy where they are," said Jon Adler, national first vice president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

The Border Patrol has launched a national hiring campaign, and Congress has granted it funding to take on 1,500 new agents. Some air marshals say jumping ship to the Border Patrol is the best opportunity they've had in years, even though it may mean taking a pay cut.

FLEOA is not a union and does not have any bargaining power to represent air marshals. Adler said, however, that about 1,300 air marshals have joined FLEOA. The association relays their concerns to lawmakers and agency officials. For example, FLEOA recently met separately with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and TSA Administrator Edmund "Kip" Hawley to discuss air marshals' concerns.

FAMS does not track how many air marshals may be leaving for other agencies, Adams said. The service is not experiencing an exodus and has maintained an attrition rate of about 6.5 percent, he said. FLEOA contends the attrition rate is higher.

Air marshals would like TSA to give them a better career path, especially since the agency now is giving screeners more career opportunities, Adler said.

The Government Accountability Office reported last week that DHS has made limited progress in enhancing career opportunities for air marshals. A March 2004 study concluded that FAMS could experience a decline in employee morale and an increase in attrition if it does not improve career development and promotion opportunities.

A matter of particular contention is that DHS management has refused to reclassify air marshals as GS-1811 criminal investigators, which would allow them to compete for positions in other law enforcement agencies and reach higher pay levels, GAO said.

Adler said FLEOA agrees with the GAO report, and has raised the concerns with Chertoff.

FLEOA supports having FAMS be part of TSA and generally agrees that screeners should have a career path to become air marshals, Adler said. But the association is concerned that TSA might replace experienced marshals who leave the agency with airport screeners who lack law enforcement backgrounds, in order to maintain current personnel levels.

Adler suggested that transportation security officers should be required to be a screener for two or three years before being allowed to apply to be an air marshal.

"You're replacing experienced law enforcement officers with inexperienced individuals who are not bringing the same investigative or law enforcement talents to air safety, and that's scary," Adler said.

Adams dismissed the charge, saying screeners will have to meet the same qualifications as anyone else who applies.

"The standards are not being lowered," he said. "The standards will remain the same."

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