Skip to content

Airport Screeners Not Getting the Training They Need, Says DHS Report

11/24/2010 -The airport security workers who screen passengers, carry-on bags, and checked baggage are inadequately trained because of poor management by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), reports the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) inspector general.

"The screening workforce is TSA's most important asset for ensuring the safety and security of the traveling public; however, the agency has not articulated a standard methodology to keep its training material current and relevant," the inspector general's audit concludes after visiting eight airports and interviewing 385 transportation security officers (TSOs).

The October report on systemic training problems was released last weekamid a chorus of criticism about TSA's screening methods involving full body scans and "enhanced" pat-downs.

According to the inspector general, the TSA does not have a documented program to ensure its approximately 43,000 transportation security officers (TSOs) receive up-to-date training. The report finds that the TSA office established in 2006 to organize and coordinate screener training did not take "an active leadership" role until last year due in part to the emergence of new threats.

"Without guidance and a documented process for updating training based on screener performance data and changes in technology or equipment, TSA may be missing opportunities to enhance its TSOs' skills and abilities," the inspector general warns.

According to federal law, screeners must receive 40 hours of classroom instruction followed by 60 hours of on-the-job training to ensure they can operate the technology and identify threats. Screeners who fail operational tests must undergo remedial training.

But TSOs interviewed by investigators complained that the TSA does not provide the time, equipment, and support necessary to complete their training. Training computers were either slow or malfunctioned. In some airports, the agency did not allocate enough computers so screeners could easily complete their training lessons. In other airports, TSA did not ensure that training computers were conveniently located close to checkpoints or in areas where they could concentrate.

Training time is also an issue. According to the inspector general, TSA does not provide enough time for screeners to complete their lessons. "TSOs described rushing through course material without devoting the attention needed to retain the lessons," the report states, noting TSA officials agreed with that description.

At one airport, time and staffing constraints led TSA officials to allow screeners to simply sign-off on incomplete printed training materials so they could begin online training sessions sooner. The screeners, according to the report, received credit for the courses "without providing evidence of reading or understanding the information." Other TSOs were simply allowed to bypass online training.

In another incident, the software training exercises didn't match the current security technologies at security checkpoints, after TSA deployed next-generation x-ray machines to 81 airports. TSA  failed to update screeners' recurrent training for the new machines because of software problems, "which limits their ability to identify prohibited items using the current checkpoint equipment," according to the inspector general.

The TSA, however, disagrees with that conclusion, noting in their response to the report that "the basics of x-ray image interpretation will not change" with the deployment of new technologies.

The inspector general also criticizes the TSA for not creating a formal program to select and dispatch on-the-job training monitors to airports to mentor screeners. This has led to airports implementing the on-the-job training program differently. At five of the eight airports the inspector general visited, screeners were provided only one on-the-job training monitor. The remaining three received multiple trainers.

The inspector general concludes the report with four recommendations to ensure TSA develops formal guidance to keep the TSO training program up-to-date and create a learning environment more conducive for training. The TSA agrees with all four, informing the department watchdog that it has already started to address them.