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TSA shuts out plan for TIA to hire private screeners

Passengers line up to go through security at Tampa International Airport, which uses TSA employees as screeners.

Times (2009)

Passengers line up to go through security at Tampa International Airport, which uses TSA employees as screeners.

As Congress tried to fix airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a debate raged over who could do the job better: government workers or private business.

Uncle Sam won with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration in 2001. But a little-known provision of the law opened the door for airports to choose private security companies to screen passengers under TSA oversight.

Just as dozens of airports — including Tampa International — were looking into the option, TSA Administrator John Pistole slammed the door shut late Friday.

In a brief statement, Pistole said he reviewed the program and decided not to expand it beyond the 16 airports that now use private companies.

"I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time," he said.

Orlando Sanford International Airport was ready to file its application for the agency's Screening Partnership Program, said Diane Crews, vice president of administration for the airport. "We're still planning to do that. If they deny it, we'll deal with that."

Tampa International staffers will continue with a detailed review for the airport board, CEO Joe Lopano said.

"At this moment, we have not found any operational or customer service benefit for us to go private," he said.

At the direction of their boards, staffers at Orlando International and Sarasota-Bradenton International researched the experience of other airports with private contractors at security checkpoints. Orlando officials flew to San Francisco International to observe the largest airport in the program.

"Now, we're in a holding pattern," said Orlando International spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell.

At St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, director Noah Lagos isn't interested in making a change.

"We have a very good relationship with TSA," he said. "They're flexible, courteous and do a good job."

One of the TSA's most strident critics, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, pledged to investigate why the agency abruptly changed positions. In December, a spokesman said the TSA would work with airports interested in the program.

"It's unimaginable that TSA would suspend the most successfully performing passenger screening program we've had," he said. "The agency should concentrate on cutting some of the more than 3,700 administrative personnel in Washington … and reduce the army of TSA employees that have ballooned to more than 62,000."

Mica, who helped write the law that created the TSA, sent letters to 100 of the busiest U.S. airports in November urging officials to ditch the agency and go with private security companies. The pitch arrived during widespread public criticism of whole-body scanning machines and aggressive new patdown searches at checkpoints.

But passengers at airports without TSA screening don't just breeze though checkpoints. Private companies must follow all agency procedures and use the same equipment to look inside bags and underneath clothes for weapons.

Airports also don't save money. The TSA hires, manages and pays the contractors. Costs vary, but private screening contracts cost the government 3 to 9 percent more than government workers, the TSA says.

Pay for security officers is "very, very close to the feds', " said Gerry Berry, president of Covenant Aviation Security in Winter Springs, located in Mica's congressional district. His company has screening contracts at San Francisco International; Tupelo, Miss.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and some small Montana airports.

So why are airports so interested in turning over the checkpoints to private security companies?

While government employees can be hard to fire, private contractors can remove poor performers quickly, Mark Van Loh, director of aviation for the Kansas City (Mo.) Aviation Department, told MSNBC.com. It's easier to reach the private company, too.

"Because I'm a client, I get a return call immediately," Van Loh said.

Berry said his worker attendance rate is higher and attrition rate lower than at TSA.

"You have to come to work wearing a long-sleeve shirt and tie, and you have to be good with the public," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8128.

TSA shuts out plan for TIA to hire private screeners 01/31/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 4:46pm]
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