TSA Required to Reconsider Pilot Program for Private Sector Screening

TSA Required to Reconsider Pilot Program for Private Sector Screening
By Jennifer Scholtes, CQ Staff

Language that would require the Transportation Security Administration to reconsider several previously rejected requests for private airport security was cleared Monday as the Senate sent legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to the president.

The conference report on the bill (HR 658) would force the agency to approve certain applications filed by airports that have asked for the ability to hire private companies to carry out checkpoint screening. Over the last year, legislators have called on TSA Administrator John S. Pistole to reverse the decision he made in 2011 to halt expansion of the agency’s pilot program for private sector screening.

On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.,— one of TSA’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill — said he believes the private sector can provide the same level of airport security as the federal government, but for cheaper. And with private companies doing the work, there is incentive to treat travelers well, he said.

“I think part of the problem with the TSA is that if you pay me $500 to ride on my airplane and I’m providing security, I’m probably going to be nicer to you because you’re my customer,” said the senator, who incited national discussion last month after refusing to undergo a pat down after setting off an airport screening machine. “We’re not a customer of the government, so they’re not very nice to us. So you need a customer relationship.”

Until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, airlines pooled resources to conduct airport security. If the United States were to revert back to such a model, the airport experience for the traveling public would likely be “more dignified,” Paul said.

Pistole told lawmakers in November that he is open to new approaches to allowing the private sector conduct security screening, but the agency has yet to allow additional airports to join the pilot program beyond the 16 that were enrolled since its creation in 2004.

The administrator is looking for a “clear substantial advantage . . . in terms of security and efficiency” in considering further expansion of the program, he has told Congress.

The legislation the Senate approved Monday evening in a 75-20 vote would require TSA to approve applications pending between Jan. 1, 2011 and Feb. 3 of that year. During that period, six airports applied for the program, according to the agency.

Orlando Sanford International, a major hub that falls within the bounds of bill sponsor John L. Mica’s district, is among the applicants that would be reconsidered under the measure. The Florida Republican, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said TSA should not take on all of the roles of operator, auditor and regulator at airports.

The other five applicants to get a second consideration are much smaller airports in areas such as Butte and Missoula Montana, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and Springfield, Mo.

With some paperwork and explaining, TSA officials will have the ability to deny any of the airports the second time around. The language Congress cleared stipulates that the agency must determine that having private sector screening at a particular port would provide the same level of security or better than that of federal personnel. If the agency denies an application, officials would be required to detail their rationale to lawmakers.

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