November 17, 2004 

Airport security screening may go into private hands

LAX spokeswoman says it is not among the facilities that will apply to switch from federally trained work force to private screeners. But other airport officials are responding to complaints of long waits by asking for private luggage and passenger screening.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Two years after the federal government took over all airline passenger and baggage screening following glaring lapses in security, some airports are considering a return to privately employed screeners.

The Transportation Security Administration will start accepting applications from airports Friday for what could be another major change in the way aviation security is handled in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some airport officials are unhappy with the current federal system, saying it doesn't allow enough work force flexibility and has caused long waits at security checkpoints.

But no one seems certain at this point how many airports might seek approval to return to a private screening work force, under TSA supervision.

"I'd say about four are very interested and are doing some very elaborate negotiations with the TSA," said Stephen Van Beek, executive vice president for policy at Airports Council International-North America, which represents some of the nation's largest airports.

Another 20 to 30 airports have expressed some level of interest in the program, Van Beek added, declining to name them.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who heads the House aviation subcommittee, has said he expects at least 100 airports to apply.

Los Angeles International Airport will not be among those seeking a change.

"LAX has had no discussions with the TSA regarding having our own security agents," airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said. "We prefer that the TSA continue to do that work."

Supporters of the private work force program, which was allowed under a sweeping aviation security law passed immediately after 9-11, say it will give airports more operating authority without compromising security. TSA must ensure that screener performance remains equal to or better than it would be under a federal work force.

"The operational success of our highly centralized, all-federal screening bureaucracy has been marginal by almost any effective and objective evaluation," Mica said at a hearing on the issue. "Numerous airports have been plagued with passenger screening delays. Screener vacancies exceed 20 percent in some of our busiest airports. Training and background checks have lagged behind."

But some Democrats argue that returning to a private work force is going too far. They argue that the federal security directors at individual airports should be given more authority to make decisions about staffing and other security matters locally.

"The flexibility that the TSA has extended to the private contractors in a number of areas, which make a lot of sense, should be applied to the TSA," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the top Democrat on the aviation subcommittee. "We should decentralize the system. The (federal security directors) ... should be given authority for training, for hiring and for firing."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to repeal the TSA initiative, known as the Screening Partnership Program. But it has languished in the subcommittee.

Private, federal screeners compared

Assessing a test program that involves five airports, Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said last spring there was not enough information "to determine conclusively whether the (privately employed) airport screeners performed at a level equal to or greater than that of federal screeners."

"Available data from limited covert testing suggests that they performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly," he said.

A private consulting firm hired by the TSA to study the pilot program found mixed results, and concluded "there is no evidence that any of the five privately screened airports performed below the average (security) level of the federal airports. ..."

One, Kansas City International Airport, "is outperforming the average level of its federal counterparts," the study by BearingPoint concluded.

Before the federal takeover of airport security was completed at the end of 2002, airlines contracted with private firms for security screeners. The Sept. 11 hijackings exposed major flaws in that system, including low pay, high turnover, lax training and poor performance.

But the federal system, involving a 45,000-member work force, has drawn plenty of critics, too, especially on Capitol Hill. The complaints have ranged from high costs to poor rates of detecting weapons and other contraband in undercover tests.

"Quite frankly, it's difficult or impossible, I believe, to micromanage the employment, the training and the deployment of tens of thousands of screeners from Washington, D.C., to scores of differently configured airports with fluctuating scheduling requirements," Mica said.

"Anyone who has seen the classified results and detection rates of this system (and) does not call for reform in the program I believe is derelict in their responsibility."

Adequate staffing levels an issue

Airport officials say security has improved since Sept. 11, but there have been problems with recruitment and ensuring there are enough screeners on hand during peak travel times so passengers don't have to wait in long lines. The BearingPoint study concluded that private contractors have much more flexibility in personnel matters, like hiring part-time workers and splitting shifts so more screeners are on hand when airport traffic is heaviest.

The study concluded that two of the airports in the pilot program -- Kansas City and San Francisco -- "had significantly shorter wait times than federally screened airports within their respective (traffic) categories."

But the study did not find any major cost differences between the airports and passenger satisfaction ratings were mixed. The five airports in the pilot program -- which also are Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- intend to keep their private work forces.

"We're very pleased with it," said Michael McCarron, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport. "We saw creativity in using the work force."

After an airport applies for the program, the TSA will determine whether it is eligible and, if it is, seek contract proposals from private firms.

"It's really going to be a customized package for each of the individual airports that apply," said TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter.

Federally employed screeners will get hiring priority, and salaries and other benefits can be no lower than those provided to federal screeners. Nonetheless, the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that has tried to organize TSA screeners, objects to privatizing the work force.

"The critical work of airport security should remain with federal employees whose motivation is quality service to the American people, not profit margins," union President John Gage has said.