TSA blocks private airport screeners

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration halted a program that allowed airports to privatize their screeners, citing safety concerns, but airport administrators say TSA stopped the program with little warning and without adequate justification.

The Daily Caller spoke with three Montana airports — Glacier Park International Airport, Missoula International Airport and Bert Mooney Airport — which all said they were encouraged by TSA to apply for the privatization program — known as the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). All three airports’ applications were denied in January.

One airport director even said TSA agents actively protested the airport’s attempt to privatize, going so far as to stand at gates in uniform and tell passengers they would be less safe if the airport joined the SPP.

For its part, TSA said it stopped the program because of security concerns.

“It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network,” a TSA spokesperson wrote. “TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security. Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process.”

After 9/11, TSA was created and given authority over passenger and bag screening, but airports were allowed by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to opt out after two years and join the SPP. Sixteen airports in the US currently use privately-contracted screeners.

(TheDC Morning: TSA agent groped the wrong hot chick)

Cindi Martin, the director of Glacier Park International Airport, said her airport struggled with adequate staffing under TSA.

“From the beginning the airport experienced staffing cuts, such that it became difficult to process passengers and bags during our summers swells,” she said.

Glacier Park is a seasonal airport, with the majority of its traffic coming in the summer, and Martin said TSA’s models to determine the number of full-time equivalent employees left the airport short-staffed during the busy summer months. The reason, Martin said, was because the models were based on the airport’s October passenger levels — the airport’s slowest month.

In 2007, TSA further cut the number of FTE employees at Glacier Park from around 32 down to 17.

When asked to confirm this, TSA responded: “TSA uses a sophisticated model to determine staffing at individual airports each year, including passenger volume, peak travel seasons, baggage processed, arrival distribution of passengers and bags, flight schedules, new technology, and flight activity. Glacier Park has largely seasonal traffic and its staffing allocation was adjusted accordingly, similar to other seasonal airports.”

But Martin said it took more than a year of “rattling the chain in Washington” to get TSA to revise its model. And when TSA agreed to send extra screeners, she said it took months for them to arrive.

“Given TSA’s cumbersome hiring practices, they couldn’t get them here in time for the summer swell,” she said. The lack of screeners led to significant delays for passengers and airlines, she said.

But although TSA would halt the program three years later, it was encouraging airports in Montana to apply to the program during 2008, according airport directors.

“It’s no coincidence that four of the applications since 2008 were from Montana,” Martin said. “We were actively encouraged and recruited for this program.”

Rick Griffith and Cris Jensen, the directors of Bert Mooney Airport and Missoula International Airport, respectively, also said TSA was encouraging Montana airports to apply.

“It is true they were encouraging us,” Jensen wrote in an e-mail. “We received a visit from folks from headquarters. They basically offered us technology upgrades if we participated.”

A TSA spokesperson said the agency “remains neutral towards all potential SPP applicants and does not encourage or discourage participation in the program.”

In any case, all three airports began weighing the pros and cons of privatizing screeners around that time. They brought in administrators from other airports who had already joined the SPP, as well as companies the airports contracted with.

“We did research and asked hard questions,” Martin said. “How they managed peak times and slow times. What the benefits would be and if we would see them. We were really encouraged by what we saw.”

All three airports said the main benefits in their eyes were greater flexibility and efficiency. At Bert Mooney Airport, there were only two full-time TSA screeners. The rest were part of the agency’s national deployment force. Likewise, the extra screeners that Glacier Park fought for were national deployment officers, not members of the local workforce.

Privately contracted screeners are still under the regulations and rules of TSA.

Jensen said privatizing seemed like a logical step, since the local police had to respond to any actual disturbances anyway. Between 2008 and 2010, all three airports submitted applications to join the SPP.

At Glacier Park, Martin said the TSA screeners did not take kindly to the airport’s decision.

Martin said TSA agents petitioned for signatures inside secure areas and attended local county commissioner meetings to speak out against airport board appointees who were pro-privatization. And in in some cases, she said uniformed TSA agents stood at the gates and told passengers they would be less safe if the airport privatized its screeners.

When asked if she had any knowledge of this, the legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees, Charity Wilson, said, “No.” The AFGE is one of two public-sector unions currently vying to represent TSA screeners.

TSA also said it had no knowledge of this activity. “Any organizing activity while on duty would not be permitted,” a TSA spokesperson wrote.

Jensen and Griffith both said they never had such problems at their airports and enjoy good relations with their TSA screeners. It’s also worth noting that screeners at SPP airports are also often unionized. Screeners at San Francisco International Airport, which privately contracts its screeners, belong to the SEIU.

In January 2011, TSA halted the privatization program and denied all applications, including those of the four Montana airports.

“Certainly we were somewhat surprised,” Jensen said. “Airports have the statutory right to opt out. It never really dawned on us that the application would be denied.”

A TSA spokesperson wrote that TSA Administrator John Pistole made the decision not to expand the program beyond the 16 airports currently participating “because no clear and substantial advantage was demonstrated. If airports can demonstrate a clear and substantial advantage to use a private company for screening, Administrator Pistole is willing to consider expanding the program.”

But Jensen, Martin and Griffith said TSA never studied those advantages at their airports.

“No one ever contacted us to determine if there was a benefit,” Jensen said. “As far as we know, there was no study. It seemed very arbitrary to us.”

“How do they know we didn’t qualify when it was literally just a one page application?” Griffith said. “They didn’t look at our ability here or our process. We had actually partnered up with a private screener company. We were prepared and had been for two years to take over the screening operations.”

A recent report by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure blasted TSA’s decision to halt the program. The report said privatizing screeners at the nation’s top 35 airports could save taxpayers $1 billion in five years.

According to the report, TSA has hired 137,100 staffers since the agency’s creation and spent more than $2 billion on recruiting and training. It also said private screeners were 65 percent more efficient than their federalized counterparts.

The report compared the cost of using TSA screeners at LAX in Los Angeles with the cost of private screening at SFO in San Francisco. It found that LAX screeners cost an average of $41,208 per year compared with $39,021 at SFO. According to the report, private screening at SFO costs $2.42 per passenger versus $4.22 at LAX.

TSA has disputed the report’s numbers. It says its studies show that federalized screeners are 3 to 9 percent more cost-effective than private ones. A report by the Government Accountability Office agreed with TSA, although it did note minor deficiencies in its methodology.

The House committee report also raised the question of union influence in TSA’s decision.

TSA Administrator John Pistole denied there were any meetings between TSA and union officials regarding the decision, but the committee report included an email written by Cyndi Jenson, president of the local 1120 AFGE-TSA, that would seem to indicate otherwise.

“I have some good news,” Jenson wrote to fellow union members in December 2010. “AFGE and TSA have agreed that the SPP program will be abolished. They just signed an agreement.”

The AFGE also denied any influence over the decision. Wilson said she wasn’t aware of any meetings between it and TSA. “I don’t know anything about the basis for that email,” she said.

In February, a month after TSA halted the SPP program, it granted limited collective bargaining rights to its 63,000 employees and allowed them to organize under the AFGE or the National Treasury Employees Union. The AFGE and NTEU gave a combined $1.4 million in donations during the last cycle, almost all of which went to congressional Democrats. A run-off vote is currently underway to determine which union will represent TSA employees.

However, TSA said it has not completely scrapped the SPP and is still evaluating the benefits of private vs. federalized screeners.

“It has not been abolished,” a TSA spokesperson wrote. “In fact, we have created a new avenue for airports to demonstrate that private screening would be a clear and substantial advantage to security as a way of potentially expanding the program.”

According to TSA, airports may now reapply, and if they “can demonstrate a clear and substantial advantage, TSA will consider accepting additional airports into the program.” Martin, Jensen and Griffith said their airports still want to join the SPP and hope the process is ended soon.

“We all have different reason why this was important,” Griffith said. “Frankly, mine was just to try and protect my airport.”