Airline passengers may hate paying for checked bags, but screeners for the company that runs security at San Francisco International Airport say that if airlines hadn’t happened to change their fee structures, behind-the-scenes baggage inspections would have become impossible long ago.
Approximately 50,000 bags traverse SFO each day, but company whistle-blowers allege that Covenant Aviation Security employs far too few screeners to inspect them properly. Two weeks ago, following a year of inquiries by The San Francisco Examiner, federal officials allegedly began investigating SFO’s baggage screening operation.
Six Covenant screeners allege that dozens to hundreds of bags identified as bomb threats are loaded onto planes leaving SFO each day without human inspection. The breaches are largely due to staff size, screeners say.
“We’re here for one reason — to inspect suspicious bags — but we can’t do our job,” said one longtime screener. “People burn out working downstairs because there’s not enough help.”
Baggage fees had the unforeseen effect of drastically reducing the number of bags that SFO’s screening team must inspect each day, according to two screeners who work for Covenant, which contracts with the Transportation Security Administration.
“That saved TSA and Covenant’s butt,” said one of the screeners, who only spoke under a promise of anonymity.
Passenger traffic at SFO has increased by about 30 percent in the past decade. Yet the airport’s baggage inspection team was cut roughly in half, from between 500 and 600 to about 200 to 300 employees, alleged Ron Davis, a former Covenant supervisor. Davis retired almost two years ago, but his estimates were corroborated by three current screeners.
Stephen Burke, a screener who has worked at SFO for a decade, says even as the airport has expanded, Covenant has slashed its total staff, which was between 1,200 to 1,400 but now has 900 people or fewer.
Covenant officials declined to discuss staffing levels, and TSA spokesman Nico Melendez denied that the company screening team had been halved. SFO spokesman Michael McCarron also disputed that claim, saying Covenant actually ramped up its staffing. He said Covenant now employs more than 1,000 people at SFO, but doesn’t know how many are baggage screeners.
Yet whistle-blowers say Covenant’s employee count should be taken with a grain of salt because it includes part-timers and, until recently, double-counted employees who work in both baggage rooms and passenger checkpoints.
“There’s not as many guys per screening machine as protocol requires,” alleged one whistleblower. He said vacations and absences can leave SFO’s sole screening room with just six people to police all 46 of its X-ray scanners — well over the two-machines-per-screener requirement allegedly set by the TSA. And the inspection team was pruned again in July, Burke said, when 80 percent of SFO’s 50-plus dual-function screeners were stripped of baggage-checking duties and assigned to work exclusively at passenger checkpoints.
Melendez said the TSA doesn’t divulge its staffing requirements.
But cuts in screening staff would not be unique to SFO. According to a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the TSA has drastically downsized its nationwide workforce since 2002, having initially overestimated the number of employees needed.
Airports commonly struggle with staffing levels, said Jeff Price, associate professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the TSA has done so consistently since 9/11. But Covenant has a reputation for providing adequate staffing, said Price, who has no professional ties to the company.
“They would surge people in certain areas, or shift break times, things the government had a hard time doing,” he said.
Yet screeners say such redeployment — an oft-cited benefit of privatization — cuts both ways.
When passenger traffic is high, managers shift personnel away from baggage screening rooms and up to passenger checkpoints, where they prevent passenger delays, screeners said.
“They really concentrate on what people can see, so checkpoints always take priority over baggage,” said one screener with more than a decade of experience.
McCarron noted proudly that wait times at SFO are typically just five to seven minutes. But the screener countered that such employee transfers can leave baggage inspection teams understaffed and hard-pressed to inspect all the bags in the limited time allowed. And while no one pointed to any case in which an unsafe bag had actually caused anyone harm, whistle-blowers warned that it is just a matter of time.