Few air­ports out­source se­cu­rity de­spite TSA’s bless­ing


Dur­ing the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, screen­ers at two Sil­i­con Val­ley air­ports, San Francisco and San Jose In­ter­na­tional, moved thou­sands of peo­ple through se­cu­rity check­points.

Op­er­a­tions at the air­ports, 35 miles apart, looked sim­i­lar — uni­formed of­fi­cers re­mind­ing peo­ple to take off their shoes and put their lap­tops in plas­tic bins — but there was one ma­jor dif­fer­ence: Only the of­fi­cers at the San Francisco air­port were get­ting paid.

That’s be­cause San Francisco In­ter­na­tional is one of nearly two dozen air­ports across the coun­try that use pri­vate con­trac­tors in­stead of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­duct its se­cu­rity screen­ing.

As the shut­down stretched from days into weeks, grow­ing num­bers of TSA work­ers stopped show­ing up. At one point, 10 per­cent of TSA of­fi­cers failed to re­port for duty.

The re­sult: scat­tered staffing short­ages across the coun­try and anx­i­ety for trav­el­ers. Air­ports in Bal­ti­more, Hous­ton and Miami were forced to tem­po­rar­ily close check­points. TSA of­fi­cials con­ceded that many of­fi­cers weren’t com­ing into work be­cause of the fi­nan­cial hard­ship of work­ing with­out pay. But in San Francisco? “Op­er­a­tions were nor­mal,” said Doug Yakel, an air­port spokesman.

There has long been a de­bate over whether air­port screen­ing should be pro­vided by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or by pri­vate com­pa­nies. And the re­cent gov­ern­ment shut­down — and the po­ten­tial for a re­peat if law­mak­ers can’t reach a deal with Pres­i­dent Trump by Fri­day — has some won­der­ing whether anx­i­ety over staffing may prompt more air­ports to con­sider switch­ing to pri­vate con­trac­tors.

Be­fore the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, air­port se­cu­rity was han­dled by pri­vate con­trac­tors and paid for by the air­lines. But af­ter 9/11, those du­ties were turned over to the newly cre­ated TSA, which is re­spon­si­ble for se­cu­rity screen­ing at the vast ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s 440-plus air­ports.

But as part of that agree­ment, Congress also cre­ated a vol­un­tary pi­lot pro­gram that al­lowed five air­ports to use pri­vate con­trac­tors for se­cu­rity screen­ing. The pro­gram, launched in 2002, even­tu­ally was open to all air­ports. To­day, 22 air­ports — in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal five: San Francisco, Kansas City In­ter­na­tional in Mis­souri, Greater Rochester In­ter­na­tional in New York, Jack­son Hole in Wy­oming and Tu­pelo Re­gional in Mis­sis­sippi — par­tic­i­pate. Why not more? Pro­po­nents of the sys­tem say that the TSA hasn’t made it easy for air­ports to make the switch. The agency has fi­nal say on whether an air­port can opt to have pri­vate screen­ers, and al­though re­quests are rarely turned down, the process could be time­con­sum­ing. Oth­ers blame in­er­tia, say­ing some air­ports are re­luc­tant to tinker with an ar­range­ment that works.

“I don’t know why, but it’s just in­grained in our mind that this is the only way it’s done,” said David Inserra, a pol­icy an­a­lyst for home­land se­cu­rity at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, who has long ad­vo­cated for the shift to the use of pri­vate com­pa­nies for screen­ing.

Among the con­sid­er­a­tions once an air­port has ap­plied for the pro­gram: The cost of pri­vate screen­ers can­not be greater than what it would be if the TSA re­mained at the air­port. If ap­proved, the TSA — not the air­port — se­lects, pays and man­ages the con­trac­tor.

Pri­vate con­trac­tors are re­quired to fol­low the same rules and pro­ce­dures as their TSA coun­ter­parts but are given some lee­way to de­ter­mine how they staff check­points. The work­ers wear different uni­forms, but their train­ing, salary and ben­e­fits are about the same. The start­ing salary for a TSA of­fi­cer is $37,455 but can be higher in some parts of the coun­try de­pend­ing on staffing needs and the cost of liv­ing.

Al­though the pri­vate screen­ers are con­trac­tors, they were paid dur­ing the shut­down when other gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors were not be­cause they were con­sid­ered es­sen­tial per­son­nel, and fail­ure to pay them would have vi­o­lated their con­tract.

Eval­u­a­tions of the two pro­grams by out­side firms hired by the TSA have found no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween the two sys­tems — ei­ther in cost or the abil­ity to move pas­sen­gers through check­points, TSA of­fi­cials said.

How­ever, stud­ies by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice note that in some in­stances pri­vate con­trac­tors’ costs were 2 per­cent to 19 per­cent lower than the TSA’s es­ti­mates of its costs for the same work. The GAO also said that the TSA’s cal­cu­la­tions failed to in­clude costs such as re­tire­ment ben­e­fits.

A TSA spokes­woman said the agency has ad­justed its es­ti­mates based on the GAO’s rec­om­men­da­tions.

The out­side eval­u­a­tions did not ex­am­ine cus­tomer com­plaints, nor did they an­a­lyze ab­sen­teeism, re­ten­tion or at­tri­tion of the screen­ers who work for pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Inserra, of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, con­tends that pri­vate com­pa­nies are bet­ter suited to the job of man­ag­ing air­port se­cu­rity. He said they are more adept at man­ag­ing and re­tain­ing em­ploy­ees and can re­act more quickly to surges in pas­sen­ger traf­fic.

“TSA’s fo­cus should be on pol­icy — set­ting the stan­dards, de­vel­op­ing new tech­nol­ogy,” added Steve Ami­tay, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Se­cu­rity Com­pa­nies. “So much of TSA is de­voted to man­ag­ing this screener work­force. It’s do­ing a job that’s not in­her­ently gov­ern­men­tal.”

A 2004 re­port by the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, how­ever, found that when pri­vate com­pa­nies ran se­cu­rity ser­vices in the years be­fore the 9/11 at­tacks, their work­force suf­fered from low morale and high turnover — some of the same prob­lems that plague to­day’s TSA. Ami­tay, how­ever, main­tained that new stan­dards for train­ing and pay have im­proved work­ing con­di­tions and morale for con­trac­tors.

But Greg Re­gan, sec­re­tary­trea­surer of the Trans­porta­tion Trades Depart­ment, AFL-CIO, a coali­tion of 32 unions, ar­gued that se­cu­rity screen­ing is best left to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“The mis­sion of TSA is to keep peo­ple safe,” he said. “The goal is to iden­tify threats and pre­vent them from hav­ing a neg­a­tive im­pact on our sys­tem. That is the ul­ti­mate mis­sion state­ment. When you pri­va­tize, you’re go­ing to in­tro­duce an­other goal into that, and that’s profit.”

Other union of­fi­cials ar­gue that the an­swer isn’t pri­va­ti­za­tion, but a func­tional fed­eral gov­ern­ment that can pay its work­ers and its bills on time.

“I think throw­ing up our hands and turn­ing to pri­vate se­cu­rity op­er­a­tors is not the so­lu­tion here,” said J. David Cox Sr., na­tional pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees. “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment needs to do its job to pro­vide the screen­ing ser­vices.”

Added Mary Schi­avo, for­mer in­spec­tor gen­eral of the U.S. Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment and an avi­a­tion ex­pert: “We must never say our TSA em­ploy­ees are not im­por­tant enough to be fed­eral em­ploy­ees.”

She noted that the 9/11 at­tacks hap­pened at a time when check­points were run by pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Some of the coun­try’s largest air­ports have toyed with the idea of shift­ing to pri­vate con­trac­tors. In 2016, af­ter an un­der­staffed TSA strug­gled to keep up with a record num­ber of trav­el­ers, air­port of­fi­cials in Chicago, New York and At­lanta threat­ened to use pri­vate con­trac­tors.

TSA of­fi­cials blamed the back­ups on years of cuts that forced the agency to slash its air­port work­force of 45,000 by 12 per­cent. The furor died down af­ter TSA of­fi­cials pledged changes and per­suaded Congress to beef up its staffing. The TSA has 51,000 screen­ers, and about 33,000 work on any given day.

At­lantic City In­ter­na­tional Air­port re­cently shifted to pri­vate screen­ers af­ter grow­ing frus­tra­tion with TSA staffing that didn’t take into ac­count flight de­lays.

Stephen F. Dougherty, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the South Jer­sey Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity, said the TSA would reg­u­larly close the air­port’s check­point at cer­tain hours re­gard­less of whether flights were de­layed. As a re­sult, hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers missed their flights be­cause there was no one to clear them through se­cu­rity.

“[At­lantic City In­ter­na­tional] prides it­self on be­ing a much more con­ve­nient, pas­sen­ger­friendly air­port than the larger air­ports in the re­gion, and this change went against core op­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples,” he said.

Some Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have pushed leg­is­la­tion to make it eas­ier for air­ports to shift to pri­vate screen­ers. A bill in­tro­duced by last year by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sought to, among other changes, shorten the amount of time it takes for air­ports to get TSA ap­proval to make the switch. Lee is up­dat­ing his bill and plans to rein­tro­duce it this year, his spokesman said. How­ever, a pro­vi­sion in leg­is­la­tion to fund the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, ap­proved last year, re­quires the TSA to make a de­ci­sion on any ap­pli­ca­tion within 60 days. The agency pre­vi­ously had 120 days to make a de­ci­sion.

Christo­pher Bid­well, vice pres­i­dent of se­cu­rity at Air­ports Coun­cil In­ter­na­tional-North Amer­ica, a group that ad­vo­cates for the na­tion’s air­ports, said it sup­ports pro­grams that give air­ports the flex­i­bil­ity they need to best serve trav­el­ers.

“Our po­si­tion on [SPP], is that it should re­main a vi­able pro­gram for any air­port that wishes to par­tic­i­pate.”


Screen­ers work at the en­trance to a con­course at San Francisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port dur­ing the re­cent gov­ern­ment shut­down. The air­port uses a pri­vate con­trac­tor to screen pas­sen­gers.

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