Truesee's Daily Wonder

Truesee presents the weird, wild, wacky and world news of the day.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


As frustration grows airports considering ditching TSA

As frustration grows, airports consider ditching TSA


Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:00 AM


Every spring, private security officers at San Francisco International Airport compete in a workplace "March Madness"-style tournament for cash prizes, some as high as $1,500.

The games: finding illegal items and explosives in carry-on bags; successfully picking locks on difficult-to-open luggage; and spotting a would-be terrorist (in this case Covenant Aviation Security's president, Gerald L. Berry) on security videos.

"The bonuses are pretty handsome," Berry said. "We have to be good - equal or better than the feds. So we work at it, and we incentivize."

Some of the nation's biggest airports are responding to recent public outrage over security screening by weighing whether they should hire private firms such as Covenant to replace the Transportation Security Administration. Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City International Airport, have made the switch since 2002. One Orlando airport has approved the change but needs to select a contractor, and several others are seriously considering it.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which governs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, is studying the option, spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

For airports, the change isn't about money. At issue, airport managers and security experts say, is the unwieldy size and bureaucracy of the federal aviation security system. Private firms may be able to do the job more efficiently and with a personal touch, they argue.

Airports that choose private screeners must submit the request to the TSA. There are no specific criteria for approval, but federal officials can decide whether to grant the request "based on the airport's record of compliance on security regulations and requirements." The TSA pays for the cost of the screening and has the final say on which company gets the contract.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has written to 200 of the nation's largest airports, urging them to consider switching to private companies.

The TSA was "never intended to be an army of 67,000 employees," he said.

"If you look at [the TSA's] performance, have they ever stopped a terrorist? Anyone can get through," Mica said in an interview. "We've been very lucky, very fortunate. TSA should focus on its mission: setting up the protocol, adapting to the changing threats and gathering intelligence."

The debate

The differences between private firms' employees and federal workers are often imperceptible to the everyday traveler. Covenant security details use different badges and insignia and have higher pay for new employees.

Procedures in airport security lines do not change. Thirty private firms are contracted by the TSA to potentially work as screeners, and their employees are required by federal law to undergo the same training, use the same pat-down techniques and operate the same equipment - such as full-body scanners - that the TSA does.

With a reduced role, the TSA could become more of a regulatory agency, leaving much of the daily work on the ground to for-profit companies. But federal officials say the expertise and training offered at the 457 TSA-regulated airports are unparalleled.

"U.S. aviation security technology and procedures are driven by the latest intelligence and give us the best chance to detect and disrupt any potential threat, given the tools currently available," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said.

It's unclear whether private screeners cost the TSA more. One independent report found that private security contracts were 9 to 17 percent higher than the TSA's costs. Mica says the difference is "concocted."

The TSA also offers performance-based incentives. Employees who reach the highest performance rating can get a pay raise and a $2,500 bonus.

Many security and airline industry officials say the switch to a network of privately run screeners could hinder much of the government's progress since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Robert W. Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive based in New York, said airports who are considering a switch to private screeners are simply responding to "consumer outrage." Mann says a a better solution is tougher regulations and training for federal security officers.

"We can't go back to the late '90s when private screeners had McDonald's-level wages and attention spans to match," Mann said. "A uniform, tough government system makes a lot of sense."

The American Federation of Government Employees, the labor union for TSA employees, has questioned the privatization of airport security as well, calling it an ineffective "patchwork quilt."

Passenger-rights groups' opinions are mixed. Weary of big business but locked in a long-running fight over federal security methods, many travelers say they would like to see far-reaching government reforms and a limited amount of privatization.

"The private security is pretty good and rigid," said Kate Hanni, who runs Flyers Rights out of Napa, Calif., which counts more than 30,000 members. "But as long as the scanners and pat-downs are in place, the experience is going to be the same."

Hanni said trade groups, nonprofit organizations, airports and federal officials are working to "get on the good side of Mica" as he becomes chairman of the House transportation committee.

But what the debate over private-vs.-government security most clearly shows is TSA's customer-service issues, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has followed the TSA since it was created in 2001. In its early days, the TSA consulted Marriott International, the Walt Disney Co. and Intel on ways to speed people through checkpoints and make fliers happy.

"TSA forgot about customer service," Light said. "The early executives were worried about smiley faces, wait times. They've lost sight of that."


Covenant, based in Mica's home district in northeastern coastal Florida, has airport screening contracts in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tupelo, Miss., and seven small airports in northern and eastern Montana. Its deal at San Francisco International is by far its largest. Covenant employs nearly 1,100 people in the bay area, who make up nearly all of its 1,150 workers. The last four-year contract, from 2006 to 2010, totaled $314 million. A new contract has been put out for competitive bids. Meanwhile, Covenant is operating on a two-month contract ending in February.

San Francisco airport officials say that they are happy with the Covenant contract and that "by allowing Covenant to worry about staffing, TSA can focus on the security," airport spokesman Michael C. McCarron said.

Berry, Covenant's president and a former Marine colonel who served two tours flying helicopters in Vietnam, has become the face of the private security movement, extolling the virtues of private business in fostering better and safer environments on television news programs and before congressional panels.

"We're smaller, we can react much quicker to things and I think a lot of airports want to be more customer service-oriented," he said. "There's a reason not one of the 16 airports that have opted out have gone back to TSA."

Few government or third-party reports have been produced in the past eight years that compare the performance of private companies with that of the government in airport security. The lone outside study, commissioned by the TSA and written by an Arlington County information technology firm, compared a dozen airports and looked at data from 2004 through 2007. It found that private screeners perform at a level "equal to or better" than their government counterparts.

The full study's findings have never been released.

Orlando's two commercial airports, Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International, were bringing in Covenant and FirstLine last month for presentations on taking over airport security. Orlando Sanford approved the change to privatization in October, before the uproar over the TSA's screening methods even began.

Orlando Sanford President Larry Dale said private screening would be "more enjoyable" for the traveling public and potentially spur business.

"This country was built on competition, on private investment," Dale said, "and I've gotten a lot of complaints from passengers about the new screening. We're a business after all, and we have to look out for our customers."

Other airports, including Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport and Indianapolis International Airport, have said publicly they are studying whether a change would improve their bottom line.

The Kansas City airport, which was one of the first tochoose a private security operator, said the biggest difference in using private screeners is the ability to get security issues resolved quickly.

"Unlike a government job, these contract employees can be removed immediately with poor performance, attitude or unsuitability," said Kansas City airport director Mark VanLoh. "It shows in our passenger surveys for customer satisfaction each year."



Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home


March 2023   February 2023   January 2023   December 2022   November 2022   October 2022   September 2022   August 2022   July 2022   June 2022   May 2022   April 2022   March 2022   February 2022   January 2022   December 2021   November 2021   October 2021   September 2021   August 2021   July 2021   June 2021   May 2021   April 2021   March 2021   February 2021   January 2021   December 2020   November 2020   October 2020   September 2020   August 2020   July 2020   June 2020   May 2020   April 2020   March 2020   February 2020   January 2020   December 2019   November 2019   October 2019   September 2019   August 2019   July 2019   June 2019   May 2019   April 2019   March 2019   February 2019   January 2019   December 2018   November 2018   October 2018   September 2018   August 2018   July 2018   June 2018   May 2018   April 2018   March 2018   February 2018   January 2018   December 2017   November 2017   October 2017   September 2017   August 2017   July 2017   June 2017   May 2017   April 2017   March 2017   February 2017   January 2017   December 2016   November 2016   October 2016   September 2016   August 2016   July 2016   June 2016   May 2016   April 2016   March 2016   February 2016   January 2016   December 2015   November 2015   October 2015   September 2015   August 2015   July 2015   June 2015   May 2015   April 2015   March 2015   February 2015   January 2015   December 2014   November 2014   October 2014   September 2014   August 2014   July 2014   June 2014   May 2014   April 2014   March 2014   February 2014   January 2014   December 2013   November 2013   October 2013   September 2013   August 2013   July 2013   June 2013   May 2013   April 2013   March 2013   February 2013   January 2013   December 2012   November 2012   October 2012   September 2012   August 2012   July 2012   June 2012   May 2012   April 2012   March 2012   February 2012   January 2012   December 2011   November 2011   October 2011   September 2011   August 2011   July 2011   June 2011   May 2011   April 2011   March 2011   February 2011   January 2011   December 2010   November 2010   October 2010   September 2010   August 2010   July 2010   June 2010   May 2010   April 2010   March 2010   February 2010   January 2010   December 2009   November 2009   October 2009   September 2009   August 2009   July 2009   June 2009   May 2009   April 2009   March 2009   February 2009   January 2009   December 2008  

Powered by Lottery PostSyndicated RSS FeedSubscribe