Airport scare exposes comms challenges

DALLAS: Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) regional public affairs officer Ed Martelle will remember his first week in the field as a trial by fire, thanks to a security breach that closed three of the four terminals at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

DALLAS: Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) regional public affairs officer Ed Martelle will remember his first week in the field as a trial by fire, thanks to a security breach that closed three of the four terminals at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

Martelle was getting his airport ID badge when notified of the closure, which was caused by a TSA screener returning to a passenger a bag that tested positive for explosives.

The TSA added four regional public affairs officers in October. One is being assigned to each time zone, with Suzanne Luber in Phoenix, Mark Hatfield in New York, and Nico Melendez soon to take his spot in Los Angeles.

Spokespeople will also be added in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Miami, and Seattle, which experienced two security-related terminal closures in recent weeks. A headquarters spokesperson flew to Seattle to handle those incidents, Doyle said.

The tight budget for Martelle's outpost barely covered phone installation, so Martelle handled more than 200 media calls the day of the closure with no administrative help. Martelle conducted an impromptu curbside press conference outside the crowded airport, and didn't have time between phone calls to draft releases. Overflow calls went to the TSA's national public affairs office in Washington.

The security scare exposed some rough spots in the TSA's new communications setup, and tension between the TSA's public affairs and DFW's communications staff. Initial reports inaccurately indicated that the unidentified passenger grabbed his bag and rushed from the security checkpoint, but a law-enforcement report issued later focused scrutiny on the screener who returned the bag. Second-day coverage in The Dallas Morning News also criticized a half-hour delay in reporting the incident to airport police.

Although security issues fall under the TSA's authority, DFW public affairs VP Ken Capps issued a statement that, in addition to providing information about flight schedules, clarified that the passenger didn't "bolt" from the checkpoint.

"Capps should not have been commenting on TSA affairs, but we'll forgive him in this instance," Martelle said amiably.

"(The TSA) has a very challenging job," Capps observed. "My suggestion to the TSA is that they just be extremely sure of their information before they pass it on to the media."

Over the past several months, the TSA has built its public affairs staff to seven spokespeople and two trainees, said Brian Doyle, the agency's field media relations manager in Washington. "We're hiring as fast as we can," he said.

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