Pro & Con: Should airport screening be conducted by private security?

YES: Sixteen airports use a private model, with success and lower costs.

By John L. Mica

The most important consideration relating to airport passenger screening is which Transportation Security Administration model performs best. From covert testing, anecdotal information and independent evaluation, utilizing private screening professionals under federal regulation and oversight is a better security option.

TSA’s decision to halt this model is incomprehensible. I intend to launch a full investigation of this action, which subverts the intent of the law.

In helping create TSA, I worked to establish two models for passenger screening. It was clearly Congress’ objective that the federal government be responsible for setting security standards under both models. In addition to the all-federal model, five airports were selected and continue to operate under the private-federal model, with TSA-certified contractors under federal supervision and regulation.

Previous testing of both models determined that private operator screening performed statistically better than or equivalent to the all-federal model. The law provided that, two years after creation of TSA, other airports could opt for the private-federal screening structure.

TSA has evolved into a bureaucratic, ineffective passenger screening hassle. Instead of focusing on setting standards and auditing performance, TSA must manage a huge work force that has mushroomed from 16,500 to nearly 63,000. Its massive Washington headquarters supports 3,776 administrative personnel, earning on average $105,000 per year.

Protecting its turf, the agency continues to thwart adoption of the better model, now denying airport applications to opt out.

Despite this obstructionism, 16 airports have performed well for years under the better screening model. Over the past year, a growing number of airports have applied to or are considering opting out.

Misstatements of facts relating to TSA and private screening model are scare tactics. No one advocates converting TSA into a private company or returning to pre-9/11 security. No one advocates “McDonald’s wages” for screeners. TSA sets minimum wage levels under both models, and in many cases private screeners have better pay, benefits and working conditions.

All TSA screeners can join a union, and private sector screeners have better collective bargaining options.

Some claim that the private-federal model costs more. In fact, this model is often less costly, and if we eliminated excessive, duplicative staffing required by TSA, we could save significant taxpayer dollars.

This unwieldy bureaucracy can never succeed when it acts as security operator, and administrator, regulator and auditor. TSA must be reformed to help it refocus on identifying and evaluating risks, instituting regulations, and auditing and adjusting performance.

Unfortunately, TSA has rarely deployed assets to properly deter terrorist plots. The shoe bomber was foiled by a damp fuse and alert passengers. The liquid bomb plot was uncovered by British intelligence. The underwear bomber was stopped by a defective device, crew and passengers. The cargo package plot was discovered by Saudi intelligence. The Times Square bomber ordered his cash-purchased ticket on his way to JFK and was then apprehended by Customs and Border Protection.

TSA must get out of the human resources business and refocus its mission on security and better coordination of intelligence.

U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., is chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the House.

NO: We don’t contract out the FBI and Secret Service. Why screening?

By John Gage

The American people are being encouraged to believe that a private security screening work force — the model used prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — is preferable to federalized Transportation Security Officers.

Certain members of Congress and some in the media are advancing this misinformation that private sector and federal airport screeners are interchangeable. This is simply not true.

Airports have had the option of “opting out” of the federal screener system since TSA was created, but in those nine years only a handful out of 450 have chosen to do so. Opting out means opting in to the lowest bidder, which is not how homeland security should operate. There are some functions too important to be left to companies that would be unaccountable to the American people. There is no contracting out of the Secret Service, FBI, police, firefighters or the Capitol Police who protect members of Congress.

Why should the American public’s safety be put in danger by leaving protection of our skies to businesses whose profit motive might cause them to reduce staffing, skimp on training or cut corners on other fronts.

Those who suggest that private screeners mean an end to controversial pat-downs and other security measures are clearly misinformed. Private screeners must pass TSA training and follow all TSA policies and procedures. Leaders with the private companies tout their ability to discipline or fire the private screeners, and assert that TSA does not have that option with federal screeners. Wrong again. All federal agencies can discipline and terminate any employee who fails to demonstrate acceptable performance or violates personnel rules.

The call to privatize security screening operations runs contrary to laws enacted by Congress in recent years requiring government agencies to insource functions that are inherently governmental, and to the spirit of this administration’s drive to reform procurement practices at government agencies and reduce their dependency on private contracting. The federal government is obligated to the American taxpayers to perform its functions efficiently and spend taxpayer money wisely.

Generally, before privatizing federal employee work, agencies are required to demonstrate that a contractor is more efficient. Under TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, the agency keeps the transportation screening managers but hires a contractor to add an additional layer of management, and converts the frontline homeland security federal employees to contract workers.

There is no doubt that TSA and its federal screening work force have protected our nation from a repeat of the horror of 9/11. Instead of calling for the dismantling of an agency that is living up to its mission, proponents of private screeners instead should work to empower federal screeners to do their jobs better.

TSA must be held accountable to promised pay levels, eliminate mandatory overtime and lopsided shift schedules, deploy the best available equipment, and guarantee full collective bargaining rights, whistleblower protections, veteran’s preference, due process and constitutional rights.

Only a highly trained, well-paid, fully empowered professional public work force can provide the protection the American people need. That work force already is in place; they just need the tools to succeed.

John Gage is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.