Orlando airport might join ranks of those hiring private screeners

11:17 PM EST, December 6, 2010

As the U.S. Transportation Security Administration struggles against harsh criticism of its new see-through-clothing scanners and enhanced pat-downs of airline passengers at security checkpoints, Orlando International Airport and others are considering joining 17 other airports around the country that have replaced federal inspectors with employees of private-security firms.

The move is being pushed by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R- Winter Park, who helped write the law creating the TSA in 2001. Though private firms are required to adhere to TSA screening standards — including the new scanners and pat-down procedures — Mica and other advocates say competition will keep TSA more accountable, possibly save money — and provide friendlier customer service.

Kansas City International Airport Director Mark VanLoh noted that his airport has won the J.D. Power award for customer satisfaction among medium-sized airports the past two years, and gave its private-security firm a big share of the credit.

"We think it has a lot to do with screeners," he said. "If you go to work for the federal government, once you're in, you're going to retire here. But this company, they have a five-year agreement; if they don't like you, and you don't perform to their standards, you're on the street.

"So you know you have to be at the top of your game. And it shows. It really does."

The TSA maintains that is the kind of service the agency expects at every airport, with either public or private security.

"TSA is committed to providing both world-class security and world-class customer service," said spokeswoman Sari Koshetz. "And over the past two years, 100 percent of our officers have received additional training focused on engaging with passengers in a positive and professional manner."

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board, responding to a letter from Mica in October urging airports to consider private firms, will receive a presentation on the prospect Wednesday. Though there is no indication the board is interested in replacing TSA, the board at nearby Orlando Sanford International Airport already has taken the first step toward private checkpoint security.

Despite the advocacy of Mica and others, there is little data available comparing the performance of private contractors to that of TSA. The TSA would not release copies of either its contracts with private firms or internal studies of their performance, saying they contain "security sensitive information" that must be reviewed and redacted.

The revival of private-security firms worries safety advocates such as Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project and a former member of the TSA's Aviation Security Advisory Committee.

Hudson, whose daughter was among 270 people killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, said private security has a worrisome history of fatal inconsistency. The TSA was created after private contractors allowed the 9-11 terrorists to board planes in 2001.

"The past experience before 9-11 is that sort of system quickly deteriorates. They go for the low bidder," said Hudson, whose Sarasota-based group was founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "The federalization of security is very important. Whether you have a private system or not, it needs to be carefully monitored and it needs to have standards that should be higher."

The TSA and advocates of private companies insist those goals are met. Because TSA contracts with and oversees private contractors at airports that use them, the agency says there's no security difference between TSA and private screeners.

"TSA's security protocols and standards are the same for all commercial airports nationwide," Koshetz said. "At airports participating [in the private-security program] a TSA federal security director and management team are still responsible for overseeing the security operations. Contract screeners must meet the same requirements as federal screeners in the areas of hiring, training and performance."

Officials at both San Francisco and Kansas City, the only two airports in the TSA's 17-airport private-security program that are close to Orlando in size, said they do not review details of the program because the federal agency manages it for them.

"The airport doesn't get involved at all," said Michael C. McCarron, spokesman for the San Francisco airport.

Other airports with private-screening contractors are smaller, such as Key West, Rochester, N.Y., Sioux Falls, S.D., Tupelo, Miss., and Gallup, N.M.

San Francisco's contract is with Winter Springs-based Covenant Aviation Security, while Kansas City's is with Cleveland-based First Line Transportation Security. Neither company responded to requests to discuss its deals or operations.

Big money is involved. While 2010 contract details are not available, the TSA reported that Covenant's previous four-year deal with San Francisco, signed in 2006, was worth $314 million, while FirstLine's 2006 contract at Kansas City was worth $173 million for four years.

The TSA has certified more than 30 companies to compete for the service.

A 2008 TSA study sought by the Sentinel was reviewed in 2009 by the federal Government Accountability Office, which said the study found the private screeners cost 17 percent more than federal screeners at comparable airports. However, the GAO also said the agency's accounting methods underestimated the cost of federal screeners, and said the report found that private screeners "performed at a level that was equal to or greater than the federal" officers.

The GAO concluded that the TSA needed to come up with "a well-developed and well-documented approach for analyzing the cost and performance of [private-screening] airports if such comparisons are made in the future."

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