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Private contractors more efficient than government TSA screeners, claims committee report

Mica: private screeners
could save $1B

Airport passenger screening with private security screeners under federal supervision is dramatically more efficient and less costly than the all-federal screening model, according to a report released on June 3 by the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The report, entitled “TSA Ignores More Cost-Effective Screening Model,” compares costs for the two passenger screening models. A private-federal screening option, known as the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), was established in the Aviation Transportation Security Act (ATSA) after September 11, 2001. This program enabled airports to “opt out” and request the use of private screening contractors under federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) standards, supervision and oversight. Beginning in 2002, five airports operated under the private-federal screening model. That number has increased to 16, with many other airports requesting to utilize this option.

In January, TSA pulled the plug on allowing more airports to opt out, despite the law and Congressional intent that airports have the legal right to utilize the private-federal screening model. “This comprehensive report clearly debunks TSA’s position and efforts to undermine this cost-effective program,” Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL) said in a statement.

“The report clearly demonstrates that screening under the private-federal model is dramatically more cost-effective compared to screening conducted by TSA,” Mica said. “If the nation’s top 35 airports opted out, we could save taxpayers $1 billion over the next five years.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Mica continued. “TSA cooked the books when conducting past cost comparisons of the two models, misleading Congress and the public by artificially inflating the costs to use private contract screeners. As our report reveals, when considering critical information previously ignored by TSA, the private-federal option is actually 65 percent more efficient and would increase taxpayer savings by at least 42 percent.”

Committee staff investigated screening operations at two large, comparable West Coast airports: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where screening is conducted by TSA, and at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which utilizes the private-federal model. SFO is the largest U.S. airport in the private-federal screening program. If LAX were to opt out, it would save taxpayers at least $38.6 million annually, despite prior TSA claims that the private-federal program costs more.

Committee investigators found that previous TSA evaluations did not consider staffing redundancies at SPP airports, high attrition rates of Transportation Security Officers that result in greater recruiting and training costs, and costs incurred from using an expensive mobile TSA screening force to back-fill federal positions due to low-attendance and high attrition. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has also faulted TSA’s cost comparisons.

“With 63,000 employees, TSA has become a bloated bureaucracy that is too focused on managing its personnel and protecting its turf," Mica declared. "The United States is one of the only governments in the world that functions as the airport security operator, administrator regulator and auditor. This agency must get out of the human resources business. TSA must be reformed and restructured to become a more effective regulator of transportation security.”

Despite claims of real transparency by this Administration, TSA refused to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, did not comply with multiple requests from Chairman Mica for information related to the decision-making process behind TSA Administrator Pistole’s Jan. 28 decision, and multiple committee sources feared TSA retribution for cooperating with the investigation. Committee estimates do not include additional costs related to increased overtime and injury rates under the federal model because TSA refused to provide that information to staff.

"It is unclear what these cost estimates are based on," a TSA spokesperson told Government Security News in an email message. "While cost is an important factor — and the best estimates continue to show that private screening contracts cost taxpayers more on average — Administrator Pistole’s primary consideration is security."

"It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network," he added. "TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security.  Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process."

In light of the findings by the committee, it is recommending that:

  • TSA should not serve as the regulator, operator, and auditor of screening services at airports.
  • The TSA Administrator should immediately approve any SPP application that was previously denied by the agency, as well as any current pending applications.
  • The TSA Administrator should not have the discretion to deny an airport authority’s SPP application.
  • The TSA should pre-qualify private security companies to compete for SPP contracts.
  • The SPP application process should be revamped.
  • The transition from a federal model to a SPP model at airports should take less than one year.
  • If federal screeners fail to meet certain performance standards, that airport should immediately be transitioned to the SPP model.