SFO baggage screeners begged officials to act 

click to enlarge Employees of Covenant Aviation Security repeatedly appealed to federal officials and company executives to address safety and management issues at SFO. CLICK TO SEE A LARGER VIEW. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Employees of Covenant Aviation Security repeatedly appealed to federal officials and company executives to address safety and management issues at SFO. CLICK TO SEE A LARGER VIEW.

On May 27, 2011, 137 of the baggage screeners then employed at San Francisco International Airport signed a petition accusing their manager of making a mockery of airport security.

Their petition, signed by employees of the private firm Covenant Aviation Security, was attached to a letter accusing baggage manager Gerardo Sanchez of abusing his authority by tampering with inspection protocols, misusing baggage-screening machines, manipulating transfer and promotion processes, and attempting to silence employee concerns about security problems that allegedly threatened the safety of the flying public.

Other accusations against Sanchez include covering up incident reports of security violations by two supervisors and removing specialists from screening machines when inspection rooms were swamped with bags. Sanchez also is alleged to have promoted screeners with limited experience, overseen a dramatic rise in the percentage of baggage officers who fail screening exams, failed to schedule an on-duty supervisor during certain times of the day, and discriminated against minority employees.

Six screeners who agreed to discuss their complaints in more detail under cover of anonymity lambasted Sanchez and his superiors for staffing and training cuts they believe have crippled the airport’s security system, and for encouraging screeners to violate security protocols to cope with those cutbacks. The result, they said, is that dozens, if not hundreds, of bags identified as bomb threats are loaded onto planes every day without any manual inspection.

The letter and petition were sent to former Transportation Security Administration Federal Security Director Ed Gomez; the Investigations Department of the Bureau of State Audits; the union United Service Workers West; and former Covenant President Gerald Berry, who stepped down last month.

Yet the whistle-blowers complain that little has been done to remedy the practices they complained about aside from requiring Sanchez to enroll in a managerial training program.

“The petition that the baggage supervisors, signed and submitted to management had absolutely no impact. Management was once again unresponsive as always,” complained a March 14 post at Security First @ SFO, an employee blog “created for the express purpose of exposing and highlighting the managerial failings” of Covenant.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez acknowledged that last year his agency investigated complaints contained in two such letters, but said the inquiry concluded that neither Covenant nor its employees had endangered public safety. One screener says another such investigation began two weeks ago.

A spokeswoman for Covenant said there was no basis to the allegations. Sanchez himself declined to discuss the matter.

“If it’s a security issue, I’m not at a liberty to discuss it with you,” he said. “If employees are releasing that, that’s up to them.”

However, Covenant manager Fred Baptista, whom whistle-blowers called the “right-hand man” of Sanchez, called the complaints too vague to be taken seriously.

“The petition doesn’t name a time or specific place on it,” Baptista said. “How many eyewitnesses, how many people actually know the incident? I’ve heard the rumors ... but the reality is that only people who were there know exactly what happened.”

aviationsecurity@sfexaminer.com

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Niko Kyriakou

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