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"Sacramento airport applies to use private contractors for security screeners"
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Sacramento airport applies to use private contractors for security screeners
By Tony Bizjak
The Sacramento (CA) Bee
Sacramento International Airport wants to dump its federal security
screeners and replace them with private contractors.
Airport officials say they believe non-government screeners would do as good
a job of ensuring airline safety, would be friendlier and potentially could
get fliers through security faster.
"Anything we can do to enhance customer service, we want to try it," said
spokeswoman Linda Cutler.
Sacramento applied for the change April 5 under an "opt-out" clause in the
federal aviation security law that created the Transportation Security
Administration after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The clause allows
airports to use private security if they can get federal officials to agree
that non-government screeners would do as good a job or better than TSA
Notably, the TSA itself makes the determination. If allowed to opt out,
Sacramento would become one of just a few large airports in the country to
use private security screeners. The two largest are San Francisco
International and Kansas City.
In total, 16 airports use private screeners, out of about 450 airports
nationally that have federal security programs. The TSA says it has rejected
five requests, only one of which was from a large airport: Orlando, Fla.
Orlando recently reapplied.
The program, called the Screening Partnership Program, has been a political
football in Washington, pushed by some members of Congress who contend the
TSA is too big and expensive. While not publicly opposing privatization, TSA
officials have cautioned that airport security needs to be managed in a
centralized fashion that allows the agency to adapt rapidly to changing
Aviation industry experts, however, say the debate may be as much about
politics and philosophy as real results.
Under the program, the federal government maintains strong controls: The TSA
approves and hires the private screening companies. The federal government
pays for the security, not local airports. The TSA trains the private
screeners. Those workers use TSA protocols and equipment. They even wear TSA
uniforms. On-site TSA supervisors oversee operations at privatized airports.
"I don't think the average Sacramento flier will notice a difference if it
goes private," said Joe Brancatelli, an advocate for business fliers.
Brancatelli cited San Francisco International, the largest of the 16 U.S.
airports that employ private screeners. "Ask anybody who has been through
San Francisco. It is generally unnoticeable."
Matthew Klint, an aviation blogger with upgrd.com who focuses on TSA issues,
said that, in his experience, private screeners at San Francisco are
friendlier than TSA screeners.
But he said San Francisco checkpoint lines seem longer than at the other two
airports he frequents, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He said he suspects San
Francisco officials ratchet up security. His belt buckle sets off the alarm
at San Francisco, but not at other airports.
"It's almost like they try a little harder," Klint said.
San Francisco airport uses Covenant Aviation Security of Illinois under a
contract with the TSA. Airport spokesman Charles Schuler said private worker
retention is higher than the TSA average, but he is not aware of any notable
"It is still the TSA calling the shots in terms of what is being screened
and the equipment used," he said.
San Francisco was one of five initial test airports for the program,
beginning in 2002. All five of those airports have continued to use private
security. They are Kansas City, Mo.; Rochester, N.Y.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.;
and Tupelo, Miss.
Testifying before Congress in February, Kansas City airport director Mark
VanLoh said private security allows more staffing flexibility to meet
service requirements and is "more effective in dealing with (employees who
Sacramento airport officials and the TSA bumped heads in 2004 when wait
times at security checkpoints increased to more than a half-hour in some
cases, and in one instance hit nearly 90 minutes. TSA responded by adding
staff. Complaints are down.
But Sacramento airport chief Hardy Acree said shorter lines may be, in part,
a function of the recession, which reduced the number of passengers going
through security checkpoints. "When traffic comes back, we anticipate we
will be in the same kettle of fish," Acree said.
Acree said Sacramento based its decision to apply for opt-out after checking
with other airports that employ private companies and concluding service
The TSA historically has been cool to the privatization idea. Last year, TSA
head John Pistole essentially froze the program, saying he would not approve
more airport opt-outs unless "a clear and substantial benefit could be
realized." He argued that private screeners cost the government slightly
more overall than federal screeners. The federal Government Accountability
Office has challenged TSA's numbers.
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, has pushed the privatization issue. He
recently led a successful effort in Congress to amend the opt-out law,
imposing a 120-day deadline for TSA to decide whether an airport can
privatize and pushing TSA to review requests in a more transparent manner.
The amended law clarifies that TSA must allow airports to opt out if the
agency determines the private security option would not compromise security
and would be at least as cost-efficient as using government workers.
TSA officials did not comment on the Sacramento application in an email
response to Bee questions. But the agency said it still is asking airports
an optional question of how privatization might lead to cost savings and
The agency said that if it denies an airport request, it would provide its
reasons and "recommendations on how the airport operator can address the
reasons for the denial no later than 60 days following the denial."
Sacramento airport officials said they met with the TSA two weeks ago in
Washington, D.C., to make their case and came away uncertain about TSA's
"They weren't very forthcoming," airport spokeswoman Cutler said.
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