Airports Look at Ditching TSA

December 31st, 2010 at 8:55 am | 7 Comments |

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The Washington Post reports:

Every spring, private security officers at San Francisco International Airport compete in a workplace “March Madness”-style tournament for cash prizes, some as high as $1,500.

The games: finding illegal items and explosives in carry-on bags; successfully picking locks on difficult-to-open luggage; and spotting a would-be terrorist (in this case Covenant Aviation Security’s president, Gerald L. Berry) on security videos.

“The bonuses are pretty handsome,” Berry said. “We have to be good – equal or better than the feds. So we work at it, and we incentivize.”

Some of the nation’s biggest airports are responding to recent public outrage over security screening by weighing whether they should hire private firms such as Covenant to replace the Transportation Security Administration. Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City International Airport, have made the switch since 2002. One Orlando airport has approved the change but needs to select a contractor, and several others are seriously considering it.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which governs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, is studying the option, spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

For airports, the change isn’t about money. At issue, airport managers and security experts say, is the unwieldy size and bureaucracy of the federal aviation security system. Private firms may be able to do the job more efficiently and with a personal touch, they argue.

Airports that choose private screeners must submit the request to the TSA. There are no specific criteria for approval, but federal officials can decide whether to grant the request “based on the airport’s record of compliance on security regulations and requirements.” The TSA pays for the cost of the screening and has the final say on which company gets the contract.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has written to 200 of the nation’s largest airports, urging them to consider switching to private companies.

The TSA was “never intended to be an army of 67,000 employees,” he said.

“If you look at [the TSA's] performance, have they ever stopped a terrorist? Anyone can get through,” Mica said in an interview. “We’ve been very lucky, very fortunate. TSA should focus on its mission: setting up the protocol, adapting to the changing threats and gathering intelligence.”

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    “If you look at [the TSA's] performance, have they ever stopped a terrorist? ”

    Got me. Do they know the intention of every person they’ve taken a pocket knife away from? Have they done a chemical analysis of every bottle that’s been thrown in the garbage bin when they found it on someone’s body?

    I’m not sure we have enough information to answer that question.

  • pnwguy


    Agreed. That statement is also like saying that US nuclear weapons are useless since we have never had to use them in battle since WW2. Any good defense gains part of it’s usefulness as a deterrent force. The terrorists we would catch are the stupid and emotionally driven ones. The smart ones have avoided aviation as the easy target it once was and are looking at other things to exploit.

    I say this as someone who has flown 50-80 thousand miles a year since 9-11, all of it domestically, and I have plenty of monthly encounters with TSA. A bunch of them were jackasses at first. But by and large I have been finding their professionalism and efficiency to be going up over time. I’m still disappointed that there hasn’t been a “trusted traveler” program for constant business fliers like me, who are willing to submit to background checks. The program run by CLEAR was an experiment in that, but by doing it with private contractors and creating a redundant system of staff at each airport that utilized them, they went broke.

    Right now I hold a TSA pass for transportation workers that enables me to go to any US port facility (I need it for one customer that has a marine terminal). I had to go through an FBI background check and there is biometric data in a smart chip in the card itself. Every truck driver and longshoreman working the docks needs this now. Their isn’t a reason that airports could honor it as well.

    But the reality is, a lot of the vulnerability exploited in 9-11 was fixed within weeks of it happening. They sealed and hardened the cockpit doors, and the flying public knows they might as well fight to the death if any situation arises in flight. The element of surprise has collapsed.

  • Watusie

    What can Covenant Aviation Security do in terms of efficiency that the TSA cannot do?

    Mr. Gerald L. Berry is going to want to take home his $1 million in year in salary and bonuses. The only source for it will be the difference between what the TSA pays him and what he pays out.

    Other than paying his screeners less than what the TSA pays their screeners, where is he going to find these savings?

  • pnwguy


    “Other than paying his screeners less than what the TSA pays their screeners, where is he going to find these savings?”

    I don’t know for sure, but I don’t imagine TSA’s federal work rules allow for too much part-time staff. That could be one savings. I’ve been to a few tiny airports where there are a handful of commercial flights a day, and at very set times. If they have to pay federal workers for a full day, while they sit idle for most of it, that can’t be very efficient. Also part-timers could help with peak load times in the early mornings and 5-8 PM slots when the number of flights are really concentrated. Right now that probably generates use of overtime workers.

    I’m speculating here, admittedly. I don’t believe TSA has collective bargaining, but the case often that has made businesses anti-union isn’t the pay. It’s the rigidity of work rules. If federal work rules are more rigid in general, then potentially a private contractor could gain efficiencies there.

    But I’m more concerned that a private firm bears a potentially huge insurance cost, that a government agency wouldn’t have. So if another terrorist event happens with aviation, and a private screening firm was involved in not catching it, the lawsuit potential against them would be monstrous. So absent a waiver to grant them immunity, they would have to add in millions in insurance costs not present now.

  • Watusie

    pnwguy – I’m as in the dark as you are, but: is it beyond the scope of human ability to create new work rules for the TSA?

    As for your last paragraph: the private screening firm will simply declare bankruptcy and disappear. Mr. Gerald L. Berry, however, will keep the millions he has already trousered. And will probably open a new private screening firm the next day.

  • pnwguy


    I’d agree that might be the case. It’s part of why there was legitimate anger at the bank bailouts, with the same private rewards/public risk that stunk. Related to that are all of the private contractors in defense, from Blackwater, KBR, and others, where well connected firms can be showered with profits while escaping liability. There is a difference between market capitalism and crony capitalism, where too much of what government needs to do is doled out to enrich the right campaign donors. I want to not react negatively to any call for privatizing a government function, because most CAN be well structured to generate efficiencies and public benefit. But far too often, I find the people pushing this have a different agenda.

    I was trying to make a related point on the threat about Alfred’s Kahn’s passing:

    “Republicans need to remember this BIG difference between being pro-market and pro-business. And often markets need some government protections to enforce a level competitive playing field that benefits consumers, not just sellers. The problem with that distinction is that MARKETS are nebulous things, and they can’t provide campaign donations. Existing businesses IN a market (or those who now want to enter one) are the ones handing out campaign cash or funding various business PACs. They usually do so not in the interests of free competition, but to curry some favor that tilts things in their direction.”

  • Watusie

    “MARKETS are nebulous things, and they can’t provide campaign donations.”

    LOL – I’ll be stealing that from you sometime in the near future – apologies in advance.