- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

The Transportation Security Administration is blocking airports that want to use private screeners instead of federal employees in a move the agency’s critics say is a sop to labor unions.

Several dozen airports around the country are considering opting out of TSA screening and hiring private-sector firms to search passengers and luggage under federal supervision. At least six airports already have applied for permission to hire private screeners, as they are allowed to do under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001.

The airports that have applied to opt out include Orlando-Sanford International in Florida, Springfield-Branson National in Missouri and four in Montana.

Those airports say private-sector screeners are more focused on passengers and less expensive than federal employees. Airport officials also say that because TSA continues to supervise and set standards for the screening, there is no difference in the security provided by private firms.

The TSA announced last month that it would not permit any more airports to join the 16 already using private-sector screeners.

TSA chief John Pistole said in a statement Jan. 28 that he had “decided not to expand the [opt-out] program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time.”

Lawmakers and airport executives say that is out of step with the law.

“I think they’re violating both the intent of Congress and the spirit of the law,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to The Washington Times.

Mr. Mica, one of the authors of the 2001 law, said he thinks the move was a concession to labor unions, which late last week were granted limited collective-bargaining rights for federal screeners.

“Unions have been instrumental in opposing the opt-out,” he said, adding that the grant of collective bargaining rights was “the Obama administration’s biggest gift to big labor.”

TSA spokesman J. Kawika Riley told The Times that Mr. Pistole’s decision was “within his discretion” under the 2001 law. He added that the decision “aligns with administrator Pistole’s vision of the agency as a federal counterterrorism network that continues to evolve to keep the traveling public safe.”

Mr. Riley said TSA would continue to consider applications from airports to opt out but would not grant any unless the airports applying could show that the move would provide a “clear and substantial advantage.”

The North American branch of Airports Council International, which represents airport management groups across the country, said in a statement it had “grave concerns about the new TSA policy, as it limits the rights of airport proprietors.”

“We strongly believe airports should have the right to determine whether to” opt out or not, the council added.

Council Vice President Christopher R. Bidwell told The Times that airports did not know what the “clear and substantial advantage” test means.

“We are working with the TSA to better define that,” he said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, has introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Authority reauthorization bill, currently moving through the Senate, to give airports the right to opt out.

“Congress clearly intended that this opt-out would be open to all airports,” Mr. Blunt said in a statement. “The law doesn’t say that the TSA administrator gets to stop the program whenever he decides he wants to.”

Mr. Mica called the decision to block further airports from opting out an “act of bureaucratic self-preservation.”

“They are supposed to be there for the public interest,” he said of TSA, “but the model they’ve chosen is not the one that performs best.”

The Florida Republican noted that the Government Accountability Office found private screeners are at least as effective as federal workers, if not more so.

“There are thousands of bureaucrats in Washington who would have nothing to do” if more airports opt out, he said.

Larry A. Dale, president and chief executive officer of Orlando-Sanford International Airport, told The Times his airport was applying to opt out anyway, saying Mr. Pistole lacked the authority to stop airports from hiring private firms and calling the TSA decision “scary.”

“This is not a matter of TSA policy. It’s a matter of the law,” he said. “Agency heads don’t have the authority to just make their own policy like that.”

“That would be anarchy,” he added.

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