WASHINGTON - More than 400 federal security managers begin arriving at airports across the country today in preparation for a milestone Sunday - the day the 3-month-old Transportation Security Agency takes over responsibility for airport security nationwide.
"The question everyone keeps asking is how will my airport look different Monday, and the answer is, it won't, quite probably," said Chet Lunner, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
"We're hoping this 90-day milestone is as dramatically newsworthy as the 60-day milestone, which was not very," he said, referring to the deadline for screening all checked bags. "Everything went very smoothly."
The real changes are occurring behind the scenes.
The agency has placed orders for 200 explosive-detection machines, a move that will allow the two major manufacturers of the EDS equipment to gear up to meet the sudden national demand.
With Sunday's deadline, officials also are racing to sign new contracts with private security firms, which will suddenly be working for the federal government instead of the airlines.
Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael P. Jackson said yesterday that the agency expects to sign contracts with about 60 screening companies before Sunday. Even so, most of those with existing contracts have clauses requiring a 30-day transition period before new agreements can begin.
That means troubled Argenbright Security Inc., which is being shut out by the new security agency, will still be a presence at security checkpoints around the country for at least several weeks, officials said yesterday.
Argenbright employees were staffing security checkpoints in Newark, N.J., and at Washington Dulles airports, where two of the planes hijacked Sept. 11 departed. In November, company screeners failed to detect a man carrying knives and a stun gun through a checkpoint in Chicago and also lost track of a man whose shoes set off an explosives detection device in San Francisco.
The company was hired by Southwest Airlines last fall to staff its checkpoints at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"No matter who's providing [the security], as of Sunday it will be under federal management and supervision," said Jackson. "This is a deliberate, planned, incremental improvement process.
"We're better this week than we were a month ago. We'll be better next month than we are today."
The federal security managers arriving at airports today will help coordinate the changes with the airports, airlines and screening companies. Most are officials from the Federal Aviation Administration assigned to the jobs temporarily until the security agency begins hiring permanent replacements.
About 10,000 people have applied for 81 jobs at the nation's largest airports, and the agency expects to begin filing many of those positions soon, officials said.
John Magaw, head of the TSA, said yesterday that he would hire an ombudsman to help deal with the waves of ideas, concerns and complaints accompanying the major security changes in air travel.
Magaw, a former state trooper and one-time head of the Secret Service, said there was "no excuse" for reported incidents of male security screeners patting down female passengers.
And, acknowledging his own artificial hip, he said that if passengers are asked to remove their shoes for a security check, there had better be a chair nearby so they can easily put them back on.
"I want to have a very simple but very complete passenger complaint system so we can monitor some of the things we're hearing."