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TSA screener privatization program needs better guidelines, says GAO

TSA checkpoint

The program that has seen 16 airports around the nation move to private screeners at security checkpoints in lieu of TSA agents needs better guidance and a formal process to measure performance before it is more widely implemented, said a study released by the government’s watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office released a study of the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP) on Dec. 6 that said there is no way to monitor the quality of work done by private screeners at airports approved to participate in the program. Since the SPP’s implementation in 2004, GAO said 20 airports have applied to participate; 25 have been approved to participate; 16 are participating in the program; six are currently in the contractor procurement process, and the remainder withdrew from participation because their commercial airline services were discontinued.

The program has become something of a political football in congress as some critics of the TSA have pushed for wider privatization of screening. TSA administrator John Pistole significantly raised the bar for the program in 2011, saying airports that want in should show “a compelling reason” for participation. The Dec. 6 GAO study quoted “TSA officials” as saying the agency denied applications for six airports because, the airports did not demonstrate that participation in the program would "provide a clear and substantial advantage to TSA security operations."

Under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FAA Modernization Act) passed last February, TSA revised the SPP application, removing the "clear and substantial advantage" question. Four of the 6 airports that were denied in 2011 later reapplied and were approved, said GAO. The GAO's said in surveys of, and interviews with, SPP and non-SSP airport operators  and aviation stakeholders, improved customer service and increased staffing flexibilities were most commonly cited as advantages or potential advantages of the program. Individual federal security directors GAO interviewed cited reduced involvement in human resource management as an advantage.

But despite those advantages, “TSA generally remains neutral regarding the SPP,” said the report. “Few disadvantages were cited; however, some airport operators cited satisfaction with federal screeners and concerns with potential disruption from the transition to private screening services,” it said.

Although TSA has developed some resources to help SPP applicants, the GAO report said the agency hasn’t provided guidance to assist airports applying to the program. The TSA has revised the SSP application to help airports provide the agency with information on whether the program would affect security, impact cost-efficiency and affect passenger screening, but it hasn’t helped airports with guidance or information about how to effectively fill out the application to participate, said GAO. “Three of five airport operators who applied using the current application stated that additional guidance is needed to better understand how to respond to the new application questions,” said GAO. “Developing guidance could better position airports to evaluate whether they are good candidates for the SPP.”

Some congressional leaders used the GAO study to further define positions on whether to broaden privatization efforts.

Some critics, including chairman of the House Transportation Committee Rep. John Mica (R-FL) and other House republicans have called for broader airport screener privatization, citing TSA inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.  

Key house democratic homeland security leaders have said privatization needs to be reined in.

“This report reveals that some privatized airports do not perform passenger screening as well as their federalized counterparts,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) in a Dec. 6 statement.  “It also reveals that TSA does not have the proper controls in place to regularly monitor private screener performance and does not validate data on attrition, absenteeism, and injury rates for privatized screeners.”

“GAO also shows that under the current system, it is impossible to accurately measure any system cost-savings or efficiencies by moving to the SPP model,” said Thompson, urging Pistole to refrain from approving any more airports for the SSP until its costs and benefits are better understood.

 
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