Are Private Contractors for Airport Security Screenings the Future?

During the partial shutdown of the Federal government, security screeners at 22 airports across the country were on the job and getting paid because they were being manned by private contractors to handle security screening rather than by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Ten percent of the TSA workers eventually did not report for duty as the government shutdown went into weeks.  Security checkpoints in Baltimore, Houston and Miami were forced to close down because of staffing shortages due to security officers experiencing the hardship of working without pay.

Private contractors handled airport security prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and they were paid for by the airlines.  However, after 911, the 

TSA was created and airport security was implemented by the agency at the nations 440-plus airports except for five of them.

The five airports at San Francisco, CA, Kansas City, MO, Rochester, NY, Jackson Hole, Wy and Tupelo, MS participated in a voluntary pilot program created by Congress in 2002 to use private contractors for security screening. Today there are 22 airports that participate in the program.

Airport security screeners provided by private contractors follow the same rules and procedures as their TSA counterparts, and their training, salary and benefits are pretty much the same except that private contractors are given the option on how they staff each checkpoint. Otherwise, the only difference is that they wear different uniforms.

According to the program, private contractors handle everything and then are reimbursed by the Federal government. The cost cannot exceed what it would cost if the TSA were to run the security screening.

The TSA hired outside firms to evaluate the two systems – government vs. private – and found no significant differences between the two whether it was cost or the effectiveness of moving passengers through security checkpoints.

So why aren’t more airports participating in the program?  Over the last 16 years requests have rarely been turned down but some supporters of the program intimate that the TSA doesn’t make it easy for airports to make the switch to private contractors. Some say that it’s due to the time it takes for approval.  However, Congress changed the time for approval from 120 days to 60 days after an application has been submitted last year.

Some airports just don’t want to change the system that is already working for them. And another reason is that the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department says that airport security screening should be best left for the Federal government to operate according to Greg Regan, it’s secretary-general.

However, Airports Council International which is a group that speaks out for our nation’s airports says it supports programs that gives each airport the flexibility to provide the best service in airport security to travelers. Its vice president, Christopher Tidwell, says their position is that the privatization program for airport screening should remain attainable for any airport that wants to become a participant.