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Private Sectory Finds iIt Hard to Regain Airport Screening Business

U.S. AIRPORTS became eligible to switch their personnel and baggage screener programs back to the private sector nearly two years ago under the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). Those workers had been federalized in the wake of 9-11. As of mid-2006, however, only six of the more than 400 sites had opted for private screeners.

When the screeners were first federalized under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, five airports were allowed to stay with private screening through a pilot program. When switching back to a private sector work force again became an option for all airports, the five airports in the pilot program immediately signed on. But only one not in the pilot test—the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Regional Airport—made the switch.

In interviews with 26 airport operators conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 16 said they were satisfied with federal screeners or didn’t see the advantage of participating in the SPP.

Mike Marnach, executive director at Sioux Falls, says that one problem may be that if there are any savings from going with the private security option—and they are not always forthcoming—that money goes to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), not the airport.

A bill introduced by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-CA) contained some innovative financing ideas for facilitating private screening—such as allowing airports to keep up to 90 percent of the savings they realize by using private screeners. But that provision was struck out in committee markup by legislators who believe screening should remain a federal function, according to Adam Tsao, formerly the senior advisor for transportation security for the House Homeland Security Committee, who spoke at a recent event sponsored by the National Association of Security Companies (NASCO).

The TSA does offer incentives for cost savings, but these are given to the private screening companies, not the airports. What’s more, TSA’s contracts generally require these companies to provide their officers with the same compensation that TSA screeners receive, making savings harder to achieve. And if private companies get a contract and then their costs exceed what they had estimated, they can recoup cost overruns from the TSA, which may discourage providers from seeking operational efficiencies.

There may also be a downside to switching back to private security, say others. They cite concerns about liability for private screeners should a terrorist attack occur. To be shielded by the SAFETY Act—which limits claims against sellers and users of antiterrorism technologies (including guard services) that are deployed to defend against terrorism—contractors must apply for SAFETY Act designation, which requires fulfilling various criteria.

Full protection is only afforded by SAFETY Act certification, which requires achieving certain performance standards. The problem, according to the GAO, is that the Department of Homeland Security has not been able to award certification status to private screeners “because TSA has not yet finalized performance standards for assessing whether contractors have performed as intended.”

Holly Woodruff Lyons, majority counsel for the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation, speaking at another NASCO event, said that the government is trying to make private screeners more appealing, and that seven to ten more airports are “on the verge” of switching over. One way of enticing airports, she said, would be to allow them to use a hybrid system, where some terminals within an airport use private screeners and others use TSA staff.

Tsao cited higher attrition rates for airports using TSA screeners—30 percent at the TSA-operated Logan Airport in Boston as compared with 15 percent at San Francisco’s airport, which uses private screeners—as another reason airports might want to make a change.

Sioux Falls’ Marnach says the biggest benefit has been in customer relations. Since switching over, passenger complaints about screeners have dropped to nil, he says. “It’s too bad more airports won’t take a stab at this,” he says, “because I really like it.”