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."Advocates
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."
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