Unions Recieving Thousands of Complaints

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Unions Recieving Thousands of Complaints

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2002

US Airways Capt. Ed Graf walked up to the Terminal B checkpoint at Philadelphia International Airport one evening last October on his way to the A320 Airbus he was to fly to Los Angeles.

The security screener asked him to tip his hat. Graf asked why. Voices were raised. An airline employee and a Philadelphia police officer appeared. Graf was again asked to remove his hat again. He asked to see a supervisor.

"I'm tired of this," the officer said, according to Graf. "Cuff him."

Four minutes later, Graf found himself handcuffed in the airport's police office, charged with disorderly conduct.

US Airways later fired him.

At airports across the country, the checkpoint encounters between flight crew and screeners have been among the rough patches in the nation's effort to transform security.

Flight attendants and pilots say they must often deal with overzealous screeners at airport checkpoints who are rude or behave improperly. They say guards single them out for scrutiny, when they should be focusing on passengers. They also say screeners get angry when pilots point out inconsistent and poor screener performance.

"Pilots are very safety-oriented," said Roy Freundlich, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "We just do not tolerate substandard performance by people who are in charge of security."

Screeners agree that confrontations with flight crews are frequent at airport checkpoints. But they say the problem is that flight crews do not like taking directions from low-paid guards and object to the idea that they must receive the same scrutiny as passengers. Screeners say crew cannot bypass security procedures because hijackers could disguise themselves as airline employees.

"We have a job to do, to screen everybody who comes through the checkpoint -- it doesn't matter if they're crew or if they're President Bush. We're just following those rules and regulations," said Jessica Neal, a spokeswoman for Huntleigh USA Corp., a guard company. "There isn't any preferential treatment."

The encounters illustrate the difficulties the federal government faces as it tries to create a professional, efficient security force with the authority and respect to keep hijackers and weapons off airplanes. The problem appears widespread, according to both screeners and flight crews.

The pilots union said it has received "thousands" of complaints from pilots, and has contacted airlines and guard companies about many of the incidents. The Association of Flight Attendants said it has learned of "hundreds" of screener complaints, and a message board Web site linked to afanet.org is filled with many from flight attendants.

A spokesman for the flight attendants said the union only recently began referring people to the Department of Transportation, which, it says, explains the low number of formal complaints. The government has received 53 formal complaints from passengers and nine from flight crews about screeners.

Some airport officials say they have noticed an increasing number of confrontations between screeners and flight crew since Sept. 11. Bob Parker, spokesman for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said airport police have responded to more confrontations at the security checkpoints.

"There are some members of flight crews who don't think they have to be searched," said Parker. "We hope they work that point of view through proper channels and not create a disturbance at the checkpoint."

Private security companies currently provide screening through contracts with airlines. The federal government, through a new Transportation Security Administration, will take over airlines' contracts with security screening companies Feb. 19 and must install a new federal screening workforce by November.

Flight attendants are asking the federal government to adopt a code of conduct that details proper behavior for screeners.

Pilots are pushing for "smart cards" that would allow them to bypass the passengers' screening checkpoint. The government is also considering smart cards to identify frequent fliers and speed their screening, said a TSA spokesman.

The problem, say screeners, is that they are under tremendous pressure to perform well or risk losing their jobs with the federal takeover, and flight crew behavior makes that difficult.

"The biggest problem is the air crew. They are so arrogant. They come through there like they're not supposed to be scanned. They cuss us out, and I have to call a supervisor to have them comply" with the rules, said a 20-year-old female screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, who declined to give her name because she feared she would be fired.

Once, she said, an airline pilot protested to having a hunting knife, which was several inches long, removed from his carry-on bag. "He said, 'You can't take that!' "

Flight crews counter that disputes arise when screeners perform their jobs poorly. Graf, the fired US Airways pilot who is seeking arbitration to get his job back, said he questioned the Philadelphia screener's hat-tipping request because it was unclear.

Tipping a cap "is from touching your cap to removing it. I wanted to clarify all that," he said in an interview.

Graf said he has taken particular interest in security screeners' duties ever since two of his pilot friends were killed in the 1987 Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crash, when a former US Air employee seeking revenge on a former supervisor bypassed security, boarded the plane, killed the pilots and brought down the plane.

"I lost a good friend a long time ago because of poor direction," Graf said in an interview.

Carmen Torres, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said Graf was charged with disorderly conduct and that he agreed to take a class on law enforcement.

International Total Services Inc., the security firm that provides screening at Philadelphia airport's B terminal, did not return calls seeking comment.

In one of the formal complaints filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, Mary O'Shea, 46, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant reporting to work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said she "got the full lift and squeeze," during a pat-down.

O'Shea's complaint said that "when [the female security screener's] hand made contact with my chest, I nearly fell backward there was so much force. The wand made contact with my crotch when she brought it up between my legs. I have to say, this felt like a personal violation."

"It's really hard on us anyway, after September 11," said Lori Vitto, a US Airways attendant who said she was brought to tears twice during pat-downs in San Diego and Seattle. In Seattle, a female screener, whose employer she could not recall, felt her breasts with the palm of her hand. "It's very difficult. I have so many mixed emotions."

The flight attendants union said they are upset by these reports. "Clearly there needs to be an understanding for people who take this position where they have responsibility and authority that there's a fine line between exercising that authority and abusing that authority. They're not the Gestapo," said Patricia Friend president of the flight attendants union. "Everyone who goes through security screening is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect."

Alaska Airlines and US Airways said they are concerned about the flight attendants' claims and will investigate. Huntleigh, which provides security at Seattle, said it investigates all complaints against its employees.

"We don't condone that type of behavior," said Huntleigh's Neal. "What's required of a search is to ask the passenger permission if we can search them. It's a courtesy, but just in order to avoid those type of accusations. And we're not supposed to touch the body with the wand."

The Department of Transportation takes complaints about screening seriously, especially issues surrounding harassment and racial profiling, said Lenny Alcivar, a DOT spokesman. The agency is "outlining proper screening procedures to make sure you have proper security balanced with civil rights."

But Alcivar called flight crews' claims that they are being searched more frequently than passengers "ridiculous."

Baltimore-Washington International Airport has not received many complaints about screeners. "Our first step would be to contact the airline responsible for that checkpoint," said John White, BWI spokesman. He said passengers are also told the name of the security company.

A spokesman for Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority, which oversees Dulles International and Reagan National airports, said he was unaware of complaints against screeners, and that any would go to the airline and the security company.

"There's several things working almost in opposition to each other in this," said George Hamlin, senior vice president of Global Aviation Associates Ltd., a Washington aviation consulting firm. "One is, this is the United States, and people will be treated fairly and with dignity. Secondly, there are serious problems you're trying to prevent."


© 2002 The Washington Post Company
 
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