- 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 depend on 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.

“We feel we have a more flexible work force as far as putting people where we need them,” said Mike McCarron, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport. “We don’t have to go through federal civil service regulations, which can be rather lengthy and cumbersome.”

He also said the airport has not suffered the screener shortages reported by airports in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and elsewhere.

“We’re aware of the option, but we’ve not made any decision yet,” said Lanii Thomas, spokeswoman for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Congress authorized the TSA to hire 45,000 screeners. The actual number now is about 39,000 full-time screeners and 6,000 part-time screeners.

Eleven of 15 large airports surveyed last year by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, had screener staffs less than their authorized levels.

Turnover among screeners averages 15 percent a year, according to the TSA.

Backlogs in training and background checks contribute to a slow hiring process, according to critics of federalized screeners.

The agency is scheduled to meet with the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee today to discuss its staffing issues.

Some Democratic members of Senate and House transportation committees, concerned about a return to private screener companies, wrote a letter to the TSA last week, saying the agency needs to increase its screener staffing levels and enforce a single standard of quality and pay for private and federal screeners.

The letter was signed by Reps. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and James L. Oberstar of Minnesota and Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.

Any private screeners hired at airports would be supervised by the TSA.

“Even if they opt out, those screeners still have to meet TSA qualifications and standards,” TSA spokesman Brian Doyle said.

However, Mr. Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee, said private security firms would do a better job at a cheaper price by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy.

“The ineptness of TSA to staff these airports is legendary already,” Mr. Mica said. “They’ll never get it right because it’s big government.”

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