- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Major airports, including the ones in the Washington area, are considering replacing their federal passenger screeners with private companies, which monitored passengers and baggage before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The legislation that created the federalized screeners gives airports the option of using private companies beginning Nov. 19 if they can demonstrate security would not diminish.

Airport managers have been expressing frustration over growing lines at security checkpoints monitored by federal security screeners. As passenger traffic returns to pre-September 11 levels, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not increased its staff of screeners.Officials at the Washington area’s three major airports are monitoring the TSA’s screener staffing and any new rules it develops before deciding whether to switch to private security firms, their spokesmen say.

“BWI continues to keep all options open,” said Jonathan Dean, Baltimore-Washington International Airport spokesman. “The process is in its early development stage at this point.”

“We will be watching very carefully this summer season,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports.

The number of airports that switch will dependon whether the TSA can resolve its screener-staffing problems and how much discretion it gives airports over hiring of screeners.

Currently, the TSA decides how many screeners are assigned to each of the nation’s 429 commercial airports.

The 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which established the federal screener work force, gives airports the option of replacing them with private companies beginning Nov. 19, the three-year anniversary of the measure. The TSA, along with Congress, is developing rules on the option.

If the TSA does not give airports discretion in hiring decisions, a “minimal” number of airports would switch to private security companies, said Stephen Van Beek, spokesman for Airports Council International North America, an airports trade group.

“If the law is expanded to give it more flexibility, I think you could have a number that would go from 50 to 100,” Mr. Van Beek said.

Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and critic of the federalized screener work force, predicts about 100 airports will switch to private security companies.

Five airports — in San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Rochester, N.Y.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Tupelo, Miss. — are using private screeners under a TSA demonstration project to determine how well they perform compared with federal screeners.

The airports say they are satisfied with the private screeners supervised by TSA staff and plan to keep them.

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