Lawmakers spar with TSA union over private airport security

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The chairman of the House panel that oversees transportation security issues accused the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Tuesday of blocking efforts to privatize airport security checkpoints. 

“Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, unless an airport's participation in [Screening Partnership Program] would hurt security or drive up costs, TSA must approve all new applications,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Transportation Security Subcommittee. 

“While I have great respect for [TSA] Administrator [John] Pistole, as far as I am concerned, there will always be at least three clear and substantial advantages to privatized screening,” Hudson continued.  “Number one, the private sector operates more efficiently than the federal government and can save precious taxpayer dollars. Number two, the private sector provides better customer service, which is severely lacking at many of our nation's screening checkpoints. And number three….with private screening, TSA can stop dealing with the time-consuming human resources issues that come with managing a workforce of over 50,000 screeners.” 

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The SPP program is designed to allow airports to opt-out of utilizing TSA security personnel if they can prove they can provide the same level of protection with private workers at lower costs. The requests have to be approved by TSA, however, which has led to friction between GOP lawmakers and the TSA. 

Republicans have championed the effort to privatize airport security for several years because they argue that many of the TSA’s techniques, including its pat down hand searches and X-ray scanners, invade the privacy of airline passengers. 

The TSA has come under fire often in recent year for its treatment of elderly and child passengers. 

Pistole was not there Tuesday to defend the TSA’s position on the privatization program, but the union that represents TSA workers argued that the agency’s workers were better trained to meet federal standards for airport security that have been in place since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

“It is clear that the screening partnership program, SPP, does not improve aviation security and it does not save the taxpayers money,” American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox Sr. told the panel.   

“Rather, SPP harms security, costs more, and hurts the TSOs who bear the brunt of the outsourcing program,” Cox continued. “Only security contractors benefit.”

Cox said Republicans were overstating the desire for airports to opt-out of TSA security.  

“There is no demand for airports to privatize the work of our nation's [Transportation Security Officers],” he said. “Although the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act made it easy for airports to apply to privatize their TSA workforce, only a handful have done so. With the exception of the Montana airports, over the past two years, only three airports have asked TSA for permission to switch to private screeners.” 

Hudson said privatization program did not allow airports to skimp on security. 

“To be clear, this does not mean airports that participate in SPP are opting out of robust federal oversight and regulations, which were severely lacking before 9/11,” he said. “It means opting to use qualified private vendors to carry out day-to-day screening functions, which lets TSA concentrate on setting and enforcing security standards.” 

The North Carolina lawmaker said he was open to “simple but crucial” changes to the program, such as increasing outreach to airports about their ability to request to participate. 

But he added that “the only barrier to action is TSA's well-known resistance to expanding SPP.”

TSA’s Screening Partnership Program Director William Benner disputed the idea that the agency has blocked the expansion of the privatization program, saying the agency has allowed 31 airports to opt-out of using its personnel, however. 

“The SPP is a voluntary program whereby airports may apply for SPP status and employ private security companies to conduct airport screening according to TSA standards,” Benner said. 

“Participation depends on interest from airport operators,” he continued. “Since the program began in 2004, 31 airports have applied, including the original statutory five pilot airports. Of those 31, 18 are currently participating in the SPP program, and either have private contract screeners in place or are in the process of transitioning to contract screeners.” 

Benner added that even airports that successfully opt-out of using TSA personnel still had to meet the agency’s standards for protecting U.S. airline passengers. 

“Regardless of whether an airport has private or federal employees conducting passenger screening operations, TSA maintains overall responsibility for transportation security,” he said. “As new and emerging threats are identified, we must be able to adapt and modify our procedures quickly to protect the traveling public. Federal Security Directors oversee the contracted security screening operations to ensure compliance with Federal security standards throughout the aviation network.”