Airports can opt out of TSA, but not its procedures

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Posted: Friday, Nov. 26, 2010

In the uproar over security pat-downs at airports, Charlotte/Douglas aviation director Jerry Orr has expressed interest in handling security internally, opting out of the Transportation Security Administration. Orr said he believes Charlotte could do security cheaper and smarter than the federal government.

A handful of airports already aren't part of the TSA and use private contractors.

But the federal government still dictates security measures, including the controversial full-body scanners and pat-downs that have stoked so much anger.

The difference between the TSA and a private contractor primarily would be in customer service, said Mike Bolles, a senior vice president at Illinois-based Covenant Aviation Security, which handles security at San Francisco International Airport.

"I have been watching the YouTube videos that get posted (of confrontations between passengers and TSA employees)," Bolles said. "If they were one of our screeners, the only question would be - Do I want to fire them, or do I want to put them in disciplinary action? I have zero tolerance for that."

But some are skeptical that private companies can be effective. Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has studied the TSA, said "there's no evidence that the profit incentives can be removed from private companies."

He said that the security lapses that led to 9-11 were under the watch of private contractors, and he said the idea of them returning in a large way to airports should be a "nonstarter."

This month, the TSA expanded the use of full-body scans at a number of airports, including Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, where they were first used in March. The machines were installed in response to last year's Christmas Day "underwear bomber," a terrorist who had hid explosives in his underwear and tried to blow up a Delta jet bound for Detroit.

Most of the scanners use low-level X-ray beams to show a reflection of the body. The other machines are millimeter wave units, which show a black-and-white three-dimensional image.

If passengers choose not to have a full-body scan, they will be subjected to a pat-down by a TSA employee.

The TSA has said the new full-body scans are critical to protecting passengers, while critics have said they are too intrusive, and a violation of civil liberties.

At San Francisco, the private security employees look like TSA employees, even wearing the same French-blue uniforms. The Covenant employees still require passengers to remove their shoes, and to submit to a full-body scan or a pat-down.

"From the standpoint of what gets done, we operate with TSA's direction," Bolles said. "The security protocols we operate with are the exact same protocols as TSA."

Orr said Tuesday that he's not particularly interested in switching from the TSA to a private company if security would be handled the same way.

"What would work for us, is, you tell us what you want the end result to be, and get out of the way," Orr said.

Orr said he would want more flexibility for how to staff the TSA's 464 Charlotte/Douglas positions. But his main focus would be on changing how security is handled, to look for high-risk passengers rather than outlawed items on all passengers.

Bolles said customer service can be improved. He said he's able to fire poor employees faster than the federal government, and that his company is able to adjust staffing faster than the federal government to handle peak times.

The TSA said in an e-mail that private screeners and federal employees are all subject to the same training and performance metrics.

After the TSA was created in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the federal government gave airports the right to opt out and use private contractors working under close supervision of the TSA. There are currently 16 airports using what the TSA calls its "Screening Partnership Program," including San Francisco, Kansas City, Rochester, Sioux Falls and Jackson Hole.

Bolles said a number of large airports recently have written the TSA about switching to private companies.

One leading congressional Republican, a longtime foe of the TSA, is lobbying for airports to ditch the federal government. This month he wrote letters to the nation's 100 busiest airports asking them to request private security, according to The Associated Press.

"I think we could use half the personnel and streamline the system," Rep. John Mica said Wednesday, calling the TSA a bloated bureaucracy.

Mica is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In the past 13 years, he has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors already hired at 16 U.S. airports, according to the AP.

Airline consultant Bob Mann of Port Washington, N.Y., said the debate over private employees vs. federal workers is a small piece of the larger question of how we provide airport security.

"There is a fair debate as to whether private or federal screening will be more efficient, or more efficacious," Mann said. "We have clearly seen prior cases where outsourcing wasn't successful."

He said some of the anger toward the TSA is part of a larger trend of animosity toward Washington, D.C.

"There is a fair amount of adverse reaction to anything government at this point, and this gets swept up in the tide," he said.

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