NEWS

Lawmakers Battle Over Expanding Privatized Screening at Airports

By Matthew Harwood

Republican and Democratic lawmakers yesterday battled over a Republican push to expand a public-private screening partnership which allows airports to opt-out of federalized security screening in favor of private security contractors.

Under the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Screening Partnership Program (SPP), an airport can apply to use a qualified private security company to screen passengers at the same level of TSA transportation security officers. Currently 16 airports, including San Francisco International Airport (SFO), use private security to screen passengers.

Last year, however, TSA Administrator John Pistole said he would not expand the program unless there was a “clear and substantial advantage to doing so,” upsetting many Republicans.

In response, Republicans added an amendment to the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (.pdf), which reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration for four years, that requires the TSA to approve any SPP application that does not compromise security or "detrimentally affect" cost-efficiency. Under the bill, which was passed yesterday by the House and which President Obama is expected to sign, TSA must also either approve or deny an SPP application within 120 days and issue a written explanation addressing why an application has been denied.

Democratic committee members Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security, argued that expanding the SPP made no sense because privatized security screening cost the U.S. taxpayer more and takes aviation security back to a similar model in place on 9-11.

“Mr. Chairman, let us not forget the lessons of our past,” Jackson-Lee warned the Transportation Security Subcommittee. “One of which is that a system of privatized screeners failed us on 9-11.”

It also unnecessarily complicates TSA’s job by making it harder to push out intelligence to frontline officers and change procedures based on the threat, she noted.

“That means you not only have to vet the frontline officers, you have to vet the company, vet the executives of the company, vet the ownership,” Jackson-Lee said.

During questioning, however, Pistole said that privatized security screener performance was comparable to TSA screeners, although he continuously highlighted that federal screeners were cheaper than contractors by 3 to 9 percent.

But a June 2011 report (.pdf) prepared for Chairman John Mica (R-FL), a vocal critic of the TSA, by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Committee found significant cost savings when comparing TSOs at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with private screeners at SFO. The report found that San Francisco’s screeners process 65 percent more passengers per screener than LAX and that SPP screener turnover at SFO is significantly less than TSA’s TSOs at LAX. It also argued that taxpayers would save more than $38.6 million a year if LAX joined the SPP.

Mica, who sat in on the hearing, told Pistole that he wanted the TSA to concentrate on regulating security at checkpoints and not staff them. “I want to get you out of the personnel business and into the security business,” he said.

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