The Transportation Department hopes to retain as many experienced airport screeners as possible as it scrambles to meet Congress' deadline for creating a new airline security work force.
Under a law passed Nov. 19, the federal government will take over security screening at airports. Within one year, all 28,000 screeners are supposed to become federal employees. Congress also created a security administration within the Transportation Department to take direct federal control of aviation security and to hire new screeners.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the new security administration recently had announced that it would allow a year of relevant work experience to be substituted for a high school diploma - an educational target that would have disqualified 7,000 security screeners now working for private companies.
But Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said there was no such announcement and "there's no shift."
Eligibility requirements the agency published on Dec. 19 say all newly hired federal screeners should possess a high school or general education diploma, or have one year of "any type of work experience that demonstrates the applicant's ability to perform the work of the position."
Takemoto said the stipulation that some privately employed airport screeners could substitute a year's worth of job experience for a high school education was only meant to take advantage of existing assets.
"What we're looking for are good, qualified airport screeners and the one-year experience is invaluable, and maybe even more important than having a high school diploma," Takemoto said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who sponsored the law, noted that the requirements mirror the new law, which allows the security administration to make that substitution.
Currently, no high school diploma is required. Workers, however, will have to pass a new test measuring things like aptitude and ability to speak English reports CBS News Correspondent Tracy Smith.
"I would prefer for us to upgrade across the board, but I also believe that there can be a judgment call here, and if someone has good experience and has shown the ability to do the job, that that should not be a disqualifier," Hutchison said on "Fox New Sunday."
David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said he feared the government might be taking shortcuts to meet "a very difficult deadline" of Nov. 19, 2002.
"We don't want to be just recycling these workers, because to some degree that's what got us into trouble in the first place," he said.
Airport screeners now on the job can remain for the time being but will have to reapply within a year. Stempler said he hopes the new work force will have law enforcement skills, such as being able to intelligently scan crowds, rather than just dutifully monitoring a computer screen.
"We really want people looking at the crowd much like police officeron the street," he said.
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