[An edited version of this story appears on msnbc.com: Airports toy with the idea of tossing the TSA.]
Writing a “We want a replacement” letter to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tops the post-holiday to-do list of Larry Dale, president of Orlando Sanford International Airport.
“All of our due diligence shows it’s the way to go,” said Dale.
Along with Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, MT and several other airports around the country, Sanford International has decided to ask TSA to turn day-to-day airport screening duties over to a private firm.
“The TSA has grown too big and we’re unhappy with the way it’s been doing things. My board is sold on the fact that the free enterprise system works well and that we should go with a private company we can hold directly accountable for security and customer satisfaction,” said Dale.
In response to passenger complaints and encouragement from elected officials such as Rep. John Mica (R-Fla), who has referred to TSA’s “army of more than 67,000” as a “bloated, poorly focused and top-heavy bureaucracy,” airports in Charlotte, Los Angeles and even the Washington, D.C. metro area are among other airports toying with tossing the TSA as well.
This despite the fact that opt-out airports realize no cost savings: “TSA issues the RFP [request for proposal] and selects and manages the contractor” that steps in, said Michael McCarron, Director of Community Affairs at San Francisco International Airport, one of the first airports to switch to private screeners.
Nor will passengers at opt-out airports be able to sidestep the hassles of what many feel are far-too invasive security checkpoint procedures. According to TSA spokesperson Greg Soule, at the more than 450 commercial airports in the United States, “TSA sets the security standards that must be followed and that includes the use of enhanced pat downs and imaging technology, if installed at the airport.”
Still, airports studying the opt-out program believe there may be benefits worth pursuing.
“While Los Angeles World Airports has always enjoyed a very successful relationship with the TSA at our airports, we aim to ensure that the highest level of security is balanced by the most passenger-friendly service possible. Contracting private screeners could be a method to achieve this goal, and it is an option we are currently exploring,” said Nancy Suey Castle, a LAWA spokesperson.
Federal vs. Private: not a new option
The idea of switching checkpoint responsibilities from TSA screeners to employees of private firms is not new.
When the TSA was created, in 2001, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ASTA) mandated that a pilot program be put in place by November 2002 to allow screening by private companies under federal oversight.
Five airports signed up immediately: San Francisco International Airport, Kansas City International Airport, Greater Rochester International Airport, Jackson Hole Airport and Tupelo Regional Airport.
Eleven other airports, including Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota, Florida’s Key West International Airport and seven airports in Montana, have joined TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP) since then.
“We’re very good at what we do,” said Gerry Berry, president of Covenant Aviation Security, the private screening company hired by the TSA for San Francisco International, Sioux Falls Regional and several airports in Montana. “By law our screeners have to get the same pay and benefits as government screeners and we have to do an equal or better job.”
Airport officials say few travelers notice whether the people doing the checkpoint scanning and the pat-downs work for the TSA or a private company. But so far none of the 16 SSP airports has chosen to opt back into the federal screening program.
“We love our arrangement,” said Ray Bishop Director of the Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming. “It delivers better customer service and security.”
Unlike government workers, notes Mark VanLoh, director of the Kansas City International Airport, problem employees working for contract screening companies “can be removed immediately.” And when there is an issue, VanLoh appreciates being able to call up the president of the private screening company. “Because I am a client, I usually get a return call immediately. We are all in the customer service business, so that’s a nice thing to have.”
The bottom line, says SFO’s Michael McCarron, is that “we feel our passengers are as safe as at any other airport. And by allowing [the private screening company] to handle the personnel management of the screening process, the TSA staff at SFO can focus its attention on security issues.”
Federal or private screeners: which way is better?
ACI-NA, which represents most all U.S. airports, is in favor of airports having the option to participate, or not, in TSA’s screening partnership program. Beyond advising airports about liability and other opt-out issues, “It’s up to the individual airports to determine whether or not participation is in their best interest” said Christopher Bidwell, ACI-NA’s vice-president of security and facilitation.
Airports currently in the SPP program do share their experiences with others, but Bidwell says although there have been two reports, one completed in 2004 and another in 2006, that show “there were some efficiencies under the private model…it would be helpful to have another study to shed new light.”
Many of the 200 airports that received a letter from Rep. Mica in November urging them to switch to private screening companies may be waiting for such a study.
At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, spokesperson Allan Siegel said “There are no discussions about using a private company to handle screenings.”
Detroit Metropolitan Airport spokesperson Scott Wintner said “We’re decidedly not interested in going back to private screening…We’re very happy with the service TSA provides to our customers!”
And Patrick Hogan at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport said after receiving the letter from Congressman Mica, “Our board discussed private screening in response to one of our 2011 strategic plan initiatives of keeping security wait times to 15 minutes or less. A private firm would still have to follow all TSA regulations and procedures, so it’s really just a matter of whether they could do the job more efficiently, streamlining the process. At this point, we don’t have a clear sense of whether that would be the case.”
For his part, Stewart Baker, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security and the author of “Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, is skeptical private screening is the way to go. “Ordinarily, as a Republican, I’d be more enthusiastic about more privatization. But private screeners won’t solve the problems we have. It may just create some new ones.”
“Contracting with private screening companies offers staffing flexibility and a few other advantages,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a free market think-tank, “But the system is still very centralized and run too much by TSA.”
“The screening partnership program may be a step in the right direction,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd, of Colorado-based Boyd Group International, “But ultimately, it doesn’t change the fact that people at the top are idiots. The real problem is that TSA needs to be totally rebuilt.”
“Regardless of who’s performing security, they’re working with a government process that is generally outdated and less efficient,” said Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The international organization, which represents the airline industry, recently unveiled a proposal for a redesigned “security checkpoint of the future” that uses biometric data to speed travelers through the airport experience. “We need to think a little more long term here,” said Lott.
Late last month, in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said security measures now in place are “objectively safer” for airline passengers and will continue to be part of the airport experience for “the foreseeable future.”
Also last month, Rep. John Mica was named chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he will surely continue to press for TSA reform while continuing to urge airports to opt-out of the federal screening program.
But real change, notes the Reason Foundation’s Poole, could from Congress. “2011 is the 10th anniversary of both the 9/11 attacks and the TSA. There’s a good chance we’ll have TSA reauthorization in Congress that will provide the opportunity to take a look at how TSA is working.”
In the meantime…
Meanwhile, back in Florida, Larry Dale of the Sanford Airport expects to have private screeners on duty in less than a year. “I’ve talked with John Mica, who is the congressman for our district, and we expect things to move along in an orderly fashion.”
That timeframe may prove unrealistic.
Cindi Martin, airport director of Glacier Park International Airport in Montana said her airport sent the TSA an SPP application in October 2009.
“We believe that for GPI this is best for the traveling public. Security standards will be met and the airport will have more input on staffing and customer service,” said Martin.
However, along with three other Montana airports, Martin reports GPI is still waiting for action.
And she says that delay is creating a new set of problems.
Knowing that a private contractor will eventually take over, “TSOs are retaliating against authority and the airport management staff,” said Martin, “And we’re getting no help from TSA management.”
[An edited (better?) version of this story appears on msnbc.com: Airlines toy with the idea of tossing the TSA.]
Note: After this story appeared on msnbc.com, I’ve received an email from Valyria N. Lewis, President of AFGE Local 555, which represents TSA workers in four states. In responding to some of the points made in the story, she addresses the comment made by Cindy Martin, airport director of Glacier Park International Airport in Montana, about “TSOs retaliating against authority and the airport management staff.”
Ms. Lewis said:
Put yourself for just a moment, inside the mind of that officer, who from day to day, does not know if they will have a job, or if their child will have a meal, or if their new insurance would cover their child’s rare medical condition. Place your feet in the shoes of the officer, who when told that their airport will privatize; don’t know if they will be among the millions of people, dreading the thought of receiving unemployment benefits that teeter on the vote of agenda driven republicans. Am I surprised that the employees are acting out; absolutely not. Change all by itself is uncomfortable, but Uncertainty, when it comes to providing for your family is unbearable. I would think the very idea would be stressful enough for me to not be able to focus on my day to day duties. I sincerely hope that this pressure is not affecting their performance of their screening duties. I can only imagine the amount of sleep lost with the worry. I pray that the officials, who make these decisions, consider these things.