Categorized | Etcetera

Push on to expand private TSA baggage screeners…

Posted on 30 November 2011


  • Passenger checkpoint:  San Francisco International Airport is one of 17 airports that use private companies to provide screening workers

Passenger checkpoint: San Francisco International Airport is one of 17 airports that use private companies to provide screening workers

As complaints swirl around the Transportation Security Administration, some airports and lawmakers want to hire private baggage screeners under a program the TSA administrator is reluctant to expand.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., wants more airports to join the little-known TSA program that hires private screeners — rather than government workers — at 17 airports so far.


“Frankly, competition is a good thing in almost all places,” Blunt says.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for president, said in a CNN debate Nov. 22 that he would privatize TSA security “as soon as I could. … It makes abundant good sense.”


But TSA Administrator John Pistole rejected a handful of applicants in January, saying there’s no proof that private companies operate better or cheaper than TSA. Despite his reservations, he’s allowing the existing programs to continue. “What I’m looking for: Is there a clear, substantial advantage to the taxpayer and to the traveling public, obviously, in terms of security and efficiency?” he told a Senate hearing Nov. 9.


Private screening


Congress created TSA a decade ago to federalize luggage screening, which had been handled by airlines before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001.


Even then, lawmakers allowed TSA in 2004 to hire private screeners that are almost indistinguishable from federal officers in San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Tupelo, Miss.


Another 12 airports have joined the program since then. The additions range from seven small airports in Montana to a heliport in New York City. Other participants are in Sonoma County, Calif.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Roswell, N.M.; and Key West.


Contracts vary with companies such as Covenant Aviation Security, Trinity Technology Group and FirstLine Transportation Security. TSA budgeted about $144 million this year for private screeners. Each time an airport asked to participate in the Screening Partnership Program, TSA sought bids from private security firms and awarded contracts. The contracts call for the same pay as TSA and the same federal standards for screening.


Airport directors say the biggest advantage to contractor screening is flexibility in moving security workers around. In Jackson Hole — the only airport in the country where the airport board itself is the contractor — about 80 security workers can be shifted around during lulls between flights to tidy up or collect data about how the airport is functioning.


“Particularly in a smaller airport, we can task them to do what we want,” says Ray Bishop, airport director.


Kansas City has a challenging layout, where three terminals have a total of 14 security checkpoints because each airline has its own. The 500 slots for private FirstLine staffers can be filled with part-timers, who can be shifted from one place to another more easily than federal workers, according to Mark VanLoh, the aviation director. Private workers also can be fired more easily, he says.


San Francisco joined because of concerns about troubles with federal turnover of immigration and customs officials, blamed on the high cost of living, according to airport spokesman Michael McCarron.


With Covenant’s 1,100 screening slots, nearly 20% of the workforce is part time, McCarron says. Besides that flexibility, the contractor can offer financial incentives that the government can’t. “That really allows us to get our peaks and valleys throughout the day fully staffed,” McCarron says.


Disputed value


TSA officials disagree strongly with lawmakers who support private security about whether the program costs more or less than federal security.


TSA had estimated in 2007 that the private contracts cost 17% more than having the government perform the job, according to a Government Accountability Office report in January. But after skepticism from GAO and lawmakers, TSA estimated that contractors cost 3% more.


“It still does cost taxpayers more to have the privatized workforce,” says Pistole, who can distribute classified security-threat information more easily among government workers.


But the chairman of the House transportation committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., argues that private workers are cheaper. Mica produced a 137-page report in June that projected the country could save $1 billion over five years by hiring private security for the country’s 35 largest airports.


Projected savings would come largely from avoiding federal pensions and reducing overtime and turnover, according to Mica’s report. “TSA cooked the books when conducting past cost comparisons,” Mica says.


Federal vs. private


TSA is a lightning rod for criticism. Even its supporters note that the agency must strike a difficult balance between providing security and whisking people to their planes.


But the debate about screeners boils down to a question of whether this is a government job or not.


John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing TSA workers, says it would be impossible to monitor different security companies at 400 airports nationwide.


“What the private sector would bring to national airport security is a fractured approach,” Gage says. “This isn’t like being a hamburger vendor in an airport. I think it’s work that is inherently governmental.”


Mica says he doesn’t want to abolish TSA but simply to reduce the staff and turn the agency into a supervisor and auditor of private screeners. He would slash the nearly 4,000 workers in the Washington headquarters.


“You do need federal supervision,” Mica says. “You need the federal government setting the standards.”


Private contractors have been well-received. J.D. Power and Associates, a market-research firm, called Kansas City the best midsize U.S airport for customer satisfaction last year for performing particularly well in security, baggage checking and accessibility.


“I think a lot of that has to do with our screeners and the friendliness and how well the system works here,” VanLoh says.

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