New Fight Over TSA Screeners

(Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., wants private firms to handle security screening at airports instead of federal workers from the TSA. By Jeff Topping, Getty Images)

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said that air travelers would face fewer long waits at checkpoints if the Transportation Security Administration hired companies to do airport screening. About 45,000 TSA screeners now handle airport security.

"I want to get TSA totally out of operating screening," said Mica, who has accused the agency of being too bureaucratic and only marginally effective. He is proposing that the agency set hiring and training standards for private-sector screeners.

Mica and his staff are developing legislative and administrative proposals that Mica said "would completely revamp the system" of airport security.

Democrats attacked Mica's plan as a return to pre-9/11 aviation security and vowed to oppose dismantling the system. Private companies handled airport security before the 2001 terrorist attacks and were removed amid complaints about their effectiveness.

"I don't think Congress would vote for it," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee. "Many of us would be down there on the [House] floor reading the failings of the previous system."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the Senate aviation subcommittee, said hiring private companies could weaken the national airport security system. "When it comes to national security, public safety must be the No. 1 priority, not a corporation's bottom line," he said.

Mica said he is trying to eliminate what he called the TSA's inability to hire new screeners quickly — which leaves airports understaffed and travelers facing long lines — by putting companies in charge of hiring, training and scheduling. That would shorten the time that slots remain open and give airports more flexibility to hire additional screeners, Mica said. "The least efficient thing they can do is schedule screeners, train screeners, deploy screeners. They shouldn't be in that business at all."

Mica said that he would seek to put a limit on the number of TSA administrative personnel and that privatizing security checkpoints "could eliminate 80% of those positions." He said the savings would go toward buying better equipment to screen passengers and luggage.

Only one airport, Elko in Nevada, has expressed interest in trading in TSA screeners for private employees, according to Airports Council International. Republicans lost a fight against establishing federal security screeners when the law creating the TSA was enacted in 2001. However, the law said airports could opt out after two years.

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