Defending the not-always-friendly skies
Screener on airport security's front lines
From Deborah Feyerick
Passengers wait in line to pass through an airport security checkpoint.
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(CNN) -- Even after two years as a security screener at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Michael Cassar still can't believe the things people try to bring on airplanes.
"Cuticle scissors or their kitchen scissors or butcher's knives. People have even come through with chain saws," Cassar said, marveling.
The passengers' reasons for carrying such contraband can be just as perplexing.
"They thought it was OK to bring a chain saw. 'It doesn't have any gas in it, so I can't use it anyway,' " said Cassar, describing an excuse he has heard.
The Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency formed in November 2001, oversees 45,000 airport screeners. Every month, those screeners find 175,000 knives, more than 2,000 rounds of live ammunition, 70 guns, and hundreds of razor blades, swords and box cutters, according to the TSA.
Cassar said he and other screeners are not there to gauge passengers' intent. Their mission is to root out objects that do not belong on a plane.
"We're not judging the individual, we're judging the items," he said.
Not everyone sees it that way. Hostile passengers often confront Cassar when they're asked to surrender items.
"People do get annoyed," he said. "They think we're doing this because we don't like them, or they say, 'Well, I don't look like a bad person.'
"[I] just try to remember that I can be in that position. I don't think anybody wants to be touched by someone they don't know."
Cassar said remembering the security videos that showed some of the hijackers that carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, passing through airport screening keeps him on alert and reinforces the importance of his job.
"There's always going to be that one person you have to watch out for. ... It makes you realize the procedures are in place for a reason."
A former vice president at Citibank, Cassar never thought he'd go into security. In 2001, he worked for a nonprofit group that helped fund disease research. After the attacks, funding ran out, and Cassar got laid off. The brand-new TSA was hiring.
"I didn't approach it as, let me see what I can do to fight the evil," Cassar said. "It came about as something where I said, 'This is really critical.'"
Until September 11, 2001, companies that handled airport cleaning often also screened bags and passengers. After the terrorist attacks, federal authorities took over and established new job guidelines.
Screeners now have to speak English, have the equivalent of a high school diploma and be U.S. citizens, among other requirements.
Only 15 percent of the screeners in place before the attacks who reapplied for their old jobs made the cut. According to the TSA, the skill of the screeners significantly increased, as did the rate at which they intercepted illegal items.
Still, there are problems, and even the TSA acknowledges that the system is not foolproof. Across the country, screeners miss a quarter of the bogus bombs or weapons sent through as tests.
Cassar switches tasks every half-hour, per TSA rules -- part of an effort to keep screeners sharp on the job. He acknowledged, though, there are days that the work gets repetitive.
But he said he knows that not doing his job well can have serious consequences.
"You always have that sixth sense [of knowing] I did my job correctly," Cassar said. "And when I wake up the next morning and turn on the news and everything's fine, then you really know you did your job that day."