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How do you fire the TSA?

By Professor Jeffrey C. Price, lead author, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats

 

people-431943_1280As waiting times at TSA checkpoints continue to increase, with even longer lines and longer waits predicted for the summer travel season, many airports are starting to consider their options. Last month, it was the Atlanta/Hartsfield International Airport director, and now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has jumped in, asking TSA to either improve performance, or the Port may ask for private security personnel to take over.

PANYNJ has already suggested that TSA hire private contractors to help with non-security related duties, such as assisting passengers in the divestment process, restocking bins, and queue line management. This would allow more TSA personnel to be utilized for the essential screening functions, and it makes total sense. There’s little security benefit to have a highly trained Transportation Security Officer move bins and tell people to take their shoes off. Some airports, such as Denver International Airport, have long used separate contractors to help with line management, taking the funding out of their own pocket to provide the personnel.

Why are the lines so long?

In a statement released by the TSA, the agency blames long lines on an increase in passenger traffic (that tends to happen during the summer), and an increase in carry-on bags, by passengers who are trying to avoid paying checked bag fees. I’m not a fan of checked bag fees or even checking bags for that matter, but the bag fees have been around for awhile, and as I’ve always said, security needs to fit aviation, not the other way around. Telling more passengers to check their bags is an example of trying to get aviation to fit into security, which reduces the benefit of air travel, makes it more expensive for everyone and ultimately, limits our freedom of travel.

TSA has also blamed Congress for budget cuts, resulting in a workforce reduction of 5,000 + Transportation Security Officers (i.e. screeners), but we also have to look at mission-creep to some extent.

Is TSA using their remaining personnel wisely?

Some programs, such as the TSA’s bomb appraisal officer program and canine programs are very worthy efforts that have assisted many airports in clearing suspicious items, and people, and are an effective way to keep people moving while reducing risk. But, TSA has also expanded the basic screening function to include Travel Document Checking (a job previously performed by private contractors), the Behavior Detection Officer program (previously, and still performed by airport police, security officers, and employees in general), and even expanding to setting up checkpoints and patrolling major sporting events and other venues. One such example is the upcoming Republican National Convention.

In a recent news story, TSA stated they are setting up screening checkpoints at the convention, patrolling the venues with their VIPR teams (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams, and generally assisting the US Secret Service. TSA says they will call in additional TSA personnel from across the country to help out. In the same article, TSA noted they might also help out if the Cavaliers make it to the NBA finals, just like they conduct security functions at the Super Bowl and the World Series. It seems the mission-creep doesn’t stop at the airport.

I can kind of see the TSA’s role in the RNC and DNC (to an extent). TSA is part of Homeland Security, as is the Secret Service, and agencies will often help each other out. But at what point does this stop? When did the TSA become the nation’s screening agency, instead of the Transportation Security Administration? Prior to 9/11, “BTSA” (Before TSA) we hired private contactors to perform basic screening functions at these venues, and paid police officers overtime to cover essential law enforcement functions. I’m not necessarily opposed to using TSA outside of the airport environment, but let’s make sure we’re properly staffing the thing it was created for in the first place – transportation, namely, aviation, since that’s where the main threat still lives.

What will it mean if an airport goes to a private screener workforce?

The real question about airports going private, is (a) could they, (b) what’s the process, and (c) how is this different than what we had prior to 9/11?

The answer to the first question is, yes. It’s called the Screening Partnership Program (SPP) and already about 22 airports have private screeners through SPP. Inside the industry SPP is referred to as opt-out, and is an extension of a private contractor pilot program that was part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. Presently, the largest airport in the SPP is San Francisco International Airport. At one of the SPP airports, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the airport itself became the private screening entity. Airport staff are hired to conduct screening functions.

In answer to the second question of how an airport can opt-out, the airport operator has to file an application with the TSA, requesting to become part of the SPP. After some indeterminate period of time (could take years in fact), if approved, the TSA will select a contractor from a qualified list – the airport operator gets a non-binding say as to who is selected but the final decision rests with TSA. TSA then swaps out its own line personnel and the private contractor moves in, with TSA leaving much of their management structure in place as oversight.

As to the final question, how is private screening different, that’s a bit harder to answer. It’s important to mention that the private screener model of today looks completely different than the pre 9/11 model. Prior to 9/11, screeners were private contractors hired by the airlines, not the government, and held to incredibly low standards of performance. Today’s private screeners are held to the same standards as TSA screeners and have to follow the same processes, so no, you aren’t going to get away from the body imager or the pat down. Beyond that, many airport operators with private screening firms report higher levels of customer service and shorter waiting times. Some airport managers say that private companies tend to do better at flexing their staffing levels to match the passenger demand, whereas TSA has a harder time being flexible, since much of their staffing is driven by screener allocation models created by TSA HQ, and federal budget processes.

So now what?

This could be the make or break summer for TSA staying in the screener business. Their ability to respond to varying passenger demands and travel habits, and still maintain all their other responsibilities, may largely determine if there is a large enough push to go back to a private screener workforce. If airports such as JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Atlanta join the ranks of private screeners, our industry may well reach a tipping point, that causes many other airports to follow their lead.

 

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