Union leaders call for airport security training

Flight attendants, baggage screeners and federal flight deck officers are not receiving the training they need to find bombs, defend against hijackings and coordinate responses to terrorism, union officials said at a Thursday hearing.

"Today, flight attendants remain as the only front-line first responders guaranteed to be in the cabin of every single passenger aircraft operating in this country," Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection. "You'd think that we would have been among the first to be given the tools and training to protect ourselves, our passengers and the aircraft."

The Transportation Security Administration does not provide an overarching framework or performance goals for the airlines, which are responsible for mandatory security training for flight attendants, Friend said.

"TSA's inability to carry out its most basic oversight capabilities has resulted in a further watering down of flight attendant security training programs over the past several years," she said.

TSA does offer voluntary training at community colleges, but Friend said flight attendants must use vacation time to attend the multiday courses and absorb the cost of their housing during the sessions.

"TSA has been slow in providing information on class locations and dates, depressing turnout," Friend testified. "It has also become increasingly difficult for our members to attend the training as it has become harder for them to find three consecutive days to take off from work. Also, with the recent rounds of bankruptcies in the airline industry and the resulting dramatic pay cuts, our members have found it difficult to pay for the necessary housing during these classes."

Robert Hesselbein, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's National Security Committee, said federal flight deck officers -- members of flight crews who are trained to use firearms to defend aircraft against hijacking or piracy -- face similar restrictions on their training.

"It must be noted that federal flight deck officers are not provided with post-basic training opportunities beyond the need to demonstrate semiannual weapons proficiency and a brief two-day refresher course after three years of duty," Hesselbein told the subcommittee.

Because the officers are volunteers, they must pay for their training out of pocket. The costs can run to $500 for basic training, $75 for each weapons proficiency demonstration, and $800 for the refresher class. The course currently is held only in Atlantic City, N.J., contributing to considerable travel and lodging costs, Hesselbein said.

Hesselbein said given these circumstances, there is a risk that the supply of volunteers will dry up.

"By their own choice, they subject themselves to significant government regulation, supervision, personal expense, liability and risk," Hesselbein said. "The more demands for personal sacrifice they are subject to, the greater the risk that their willingness to participate will diminish or evaporate." Baggage screeners are not required to pay for their own training, which is supposed to be provided at the airports where they work, but staffing shortages mean they receive far less instruction than is required, said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"Rather than construct a model that specifically allows time for [transportation security officers] to receive the training they are required to have under law, much less time to master new standard operation procedures and technology, this important task is relegated to whatever time is left, even if that time is none at all," Gage said.

According to Gage, the training provided is often in the form of outdated computer-based courses, and those sessions are overseen by instructors who have no clear qualifications to lead courses.

"Occasionally, a training instructor is present, but is relegated to being more of a monitor who can answer questions, and does not provide instructions or elaborate on the online training program," he said. "Those chosen by TSA management for [training instructor] positions had no apparent qualifications for the job, and were chosen over other TSOs who had backgrounds in security, law enforcement and the military, or had previous teaching or instructional experience."

In addition, Gage told the panel that some screeners are not getting relevant hands-on experience identifying mock bombs and bomb parts.

At some airports, "TSOs state that while they are aware that there is a bomb appraisal officer assigned to their airport, the person does not conduct training for the TSO workforce," Gage said. "This type of hands-on experience is invaluable."

Training for airport security professionals has come under increased scrutiny since a classified TSA report leaked last month revealed that screeners at Los Angeles and Chicago O'Hare airports had failed to detect more than 60 percent of potential bomb parts hidden in luggage during tests.

At the time, a TSA spokeswoman said the tests were changed so they would be more challenging, and Administrator Kip Hawley added an hour a week of training time dedicated to detecting bombs and bomb components when he came to the agency. "We want to have higher failure rates because it shows that we're raising the bar and the tests are harder," TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe told USA Today, which first reported on the test failure rates.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have registered their concerns.

"The risk of a real bomb making it on board an aircraft is much greater when TSA only has a 40 percent success rate," Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., wrote in an October op-ed. "This raises serious questions about the competency of TSA employees, their training and their commitment to safety."

"TSA may need oversight by this Congress," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, at the Thursday hearing.

TSA did not immediately respond to a request for comments on the criticisms expressed at the hearing, and no TSA officials testified.

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