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Tampa Bay airports' federal security director Gary Milano moves to the front lines

Gary Milano is federal security director for the airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Sarasota-Bradenton.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Gary Milano is federal security director for the airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Sarasota-Bradenton.

A federal prosecutor in New Hampshire, Gary Milano abruptly switched careers after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center's twin towers in his hometown.

Milano's explanation sounds hokey unless you know his background. Son of a New York state judge, a kid who dreamed of government work, a compulsive reader of history. "I left for a different career in public service because I felt that was where I could do the most good,'' he says.

Milano went to Syracuse (N.Y.) Hancock International Airport as federal security director. He took over the same position at Tampa International in November.

In five months, he's stepped up random vehicle inspections and is working with airport executive director Louis Miller on a redesign of security checkpoints to speed up the lines. Milano, 53, talked with the Times on Wednesday about passenger beefs with security screening, what officers find in carryon bags and a proposal to let pilots sidestep the regular lines.

You must have seen all kinds of strange things that travelers try to bring through airport security checkpoints in almost six years with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Is there anything that still surprises you?

That they can forget that they have the gun in the bag. Or even more amazing, that they can forget that they're not allowed to have a gun on an aircraft. And nationwide, it's a recurring theme: "Well, I have a permit in Florida, so I thought I could bring a gun on a plane.'' Never ceases to amaze me.

How often do you catch travelers with weapons at TIA?

(An assistant) got me some stats here. I thought they'd be high, but didn't think they'd be this much. For a one-week period during our current spring rush, the number of prohibited items at our checkpoints was slightly in excess of 1,500 … and of those 73 were considered deadly or dangerous weapons — knives, brass knuckles and the like. Ten dangerous weapons a day in a one-week period.

What are the most frequent complaints from passengers about security screening? The rules about removing shoes or taking laptop computers out of their cases?

You're hitting all the high notes there.

Some airline pilots say they should be allowed to skip regular screening with a biometric card that confirms their identity. Is that a good idea?

Whenever I fly anywhere, even if it's on official business, I always get screened. Even at this airport and I have no problem with it. It's better to be safe than sorry. I don't see any reason anybody should be singled out for either worse treatment or better treatment.

You hear a fair amount of criticism from frequent fliers that the screening process is too heavy-handed and TSA officers can be overbearing. Why don't you get the same respect as, say, local police?

Let me make an analogy. Think of your leg. You never get blisters on your calf because there's no friction there. The place you get blisters sometimes is on your heel, the place the shoe and the foot … rub against each other. The officer in the cruiser, you don't have any contact with him unless you do something wrong or you have an accident.

But aviation is so important, and since TSA has such a big responsibility in aviation, it's natural the traveling public and TSA — usually in the person of the uniformed security officer — do have a lot of contact. As a result, there's so much opportunity that something analogous to a blister happens.

(Flying) can create a lot of anxiety, The parking the car, the crowds, the lines. And I've found that … people who don't have a problem, who like the job you're doing, rarely say anything. The ones who are vocal are a very small minority who go to the trouble of voicing their complaints.

Gary Milano

Position: Federal security director for Tampa International Airport

Education: Bachelor's in philosophy, a master's in American history and a law degree, all from St. John's University.

Work history: assistant district attorney, Bronx, N.Y.; trial lawyer, U.S. Justice Department, Washington, D.C.; chief of criminal division, U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire; federal security director, Syracuse (N.Y.) Hancock International Airport.

Tampa Bay airports' federal security director Gary Milano moves to the front lines 04/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 9:57am]
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