Hartsfield-Jackson may seek private screeners

Lines prompt concern about TSA staffing.

Growing security lines at the Atlanta airport have officials “dreading” the summer travel season and threatening to replace federal screeners with private contractors.

Wait times during peak periods often exceed 35 minutes and were as long as 52 minutes on a recent Friday morning, airport general manager Miguel Southwell wrote in a letter to the Transportation Security Administration. He added that “things appear to be only getting worse.”

Southwell said the airport is “giving serious consideration” to privatizing screening and will start the process in 60 days unless there is a “dramatic shift” in staffing or TSA technology.

Hartsfield-Jackson International set a world record by handling more than 100 million passengers last year, with TSA workers screening about 21 million of them.

“We fear an even busier summer this year,” Southwell wrote in the Feb. 12 letter to TSA chief Peter Neffenger.

Commercial airports can privatize screening by applying for the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, under which an outside firm is hired to provide screeners, though they must use TSA procedures. Only two airports in major U.S. cities — San Francisco and Kansas City — use the program, along with a number of smaller airports.

“We have been conducting exhaustive research … weighing the pros and cons,” Southwell wrote. Hartsfield-Jackson last year hired a private firm to operate new screening checkpoints for airport workers.

The TSA said Friday it was evaluating Southwell’s letter.

Hartsfield-Jackson “remains a focus airport” for Neffenger, the agency said in a statement. “We recognize that the issues raised in the letter are a concern, not just in Atlanta.”

“While we are working on better solutions, we believe the public will support our vital mission of ensuring safe air transportation,” TSA said.

Robert Williams, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 554, which represents TSA officers in Georgia, said privatizing screening “would be catastrophic” for the officers.

“Private companies pay much less,” he said. “It’s a tough job. Not everyone can do the job.”

Williams also said he thinks a transition at the world’s busiest airport “would be almost impossible, just by the scope of the airport.”

Screening at U.S. airports was done by private contractors before the 9/11 terror attacks, in which hijackers with box cutters or small knives — which were not banned by federal rules at the time — used airliners as missiles.

Congress afterward created the TSA to standardize and boost airport security. At the time, private security firms came in for heavy criticism of hiring practices and poor performance. The switch to federal screeners was accompanied by the tougher limits on carry-on items that are now a routine part of flying.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials have periodically complained about TSA staffing and passenger wait times, and both the airport and the agency have tried various measures to speed the flow. They include additional security checkpoints, the PreCheck trusted traveler program, technology improvements and screening using bomb-sniffing dogs. The TSA increased staffing by 7.5 percent last year, but in his letter Southwell called it “late and inadequate.”

The TSA says Hartsfield-Jackson checkpoints are screening about 8,000 more passengers a day than last year, a 15 percent increase. But the agency says its current budget, allocated by Congress, caps screener staffing at the same level as the previous year — the lowest level in five years.

When long security lines were causing concerns at Hartsfield-Jackson last year, Neffenger said lines could get longer, not shorter, amid a TSA initiative to close gaps in security screening that led to reports critical of the agency.

“I believe that the traveling public is willing to accept that there may be a slightly longer wait to ensure that they’re secure getting on the plane,” Neffenger said at the time.

“The lines are insane,” traveler Margaret Thomson, of Marietta, said Friday. She said she thinks TSA screeners “throw their weight around sometimes where it’s totally unnecessary and they’re focusing on totally the wrong people.”

But if security is privatized, she added, “I don’t really see that would make any difference unless they’re going to pay the people more… If they’re a company, they’ve got a profit motive. They’ve got inducement to pay them less.”

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