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The Boston Globe

Business

TSA set to fire 6 Logan Airport staffers

14 others may get job suspensions; bag inspections deemed deficient

The Transportation Security Administration has moved to fire six bag-screening officers at Logan International Airport for violating inspection procedures for checked luggage and suspend 14 others for inattention to duty, the agency said.

The action was triggered by a routine audit that showed some officers were not paying close attention to computer monitors that display the contents of each bag as they are screened by an explosives detection machine, according to the TSA. The screeners were distracted by their cellphones and other electronic devices.

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Others ignored protocols to hand-inspect bags that triggered alarms. Bags containing dense objects, such as clay or cheese, can set off alarms, although it happens infrequently. If an officer can’t determine what the object is on-screen, the bag is supposed to be brought into a screening room for further inspection before it is loaded onto a plane.

No dangerous materials got through the detection system as a result of these lapses, the TSA said, noting that bags pass through several more layers of checks after they are screened.

All 20 employees facing dismissal or suspension, including two managers and a supervisor, worked in the same baggage room, one of 10 at the airport. They have seven days to appeal the findings.

In all, the TSA has 1,374 employees at Logan, including 1,280 officers and 23 managers.

TSA officials said the proposed terminations and suspensions are unrelated to the inquiry into allegations of racial profiling by TSA behavior-detection officers at Logan. The TSA is investigating allegations by more than 30 TSA officers in Boston that colleagues trained to identify suspicious passengers, based on appearance and body language, were focusing on minorities.

“All TSA employees are held to the highest standards of conduct and accountability,” the TSA said in a statement about baggage screeners. “These standards are critical to our work and TSA’s commitment to the safety of the traveling public.”

The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan Airport, declined to comment on the TSA’s disciplinary actions.

In the past year, the TSA has moved to fire or suspend 88 checked-baggage screeners at four airports: in Honolulu, Charlotte, Newark, and now Boston. In June, seven TSA officers in Philadelphia who the agency said tried to pay a training manager for a passing grade on annual certification tests were told they would be fired.

In the past 10 years, the TSA has fired 240 of the 3,500 security officers who have screened bags and passengers over the years at Logan. Monday’s action represents the most employees recommended for removal or suspension as the result of a single investigation.

Each baggage room is audited at least once a month, and the frequency of bags that set off alarms and are brought in for additional searches is compared to national averages. Managers can review closed-circuit television footage to see what triggered an alarm and how it was resolved.

TSA authorities in Boston launched a review in November after a manager noticed officers who were not following procedures while screening checked luggage. In December, these officers were moved to nonscreening duties, such as instructing people to remove their shoes before going through security, while officials in Washington investigated.

The disciplinary measures were determined by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which administrator John Pistole established after he took over in July 2010 to raise standards, increase accountability of workers, and oversee disciplinary actions.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers, is reviewing the allegations against the Boston agents and will probably challenge the disciplinary actions, said Chad Harris, the union’s acting supervising attorney for TSA employees.

“This incident is an indication of a systemic problem that exists not with the employees but with the managers and supervisors at Boston Logan International airport,” he said.

TSA workers, he said, “are highly monitored employees. They don’t have the discretion to make the decisions that are not in compliance with what their managers say they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Dennis Graham, a suspended screening officer, said baggage rooms are understaffed and workers sometimes eat on the job or talk on the phone because they aren’t given breaks.

“The place is a walking disaster,” said Graham, 36, who has worked at Logan for 10 years. “The place is anything but safe right now.”

Under TSA rules, baggage screeners get a 30-minute meal break and two 15-minute breaks per eight-hour shift.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.
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