WASHINGTON — Following a series of complaints from fliers that security screenings run by the Transportation Security Administration are ineffective, inefficient and overly invasive, airport officials in the Twin Cities are looking at making a big change.
Officials with the Metropolitan Airports Commission say they have begun a study into replacing the TSA’s security screening system at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with one run by private contractors.
“It’s something we’re looking at,” said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the airport commission, adding that it’s also something “worth looking into.”
MSP was one of 100 airports that received a letter from Florida Republican John Mica, who is set to succeed Rep. Jim Oberstar as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure, to airports nationwide encouraging them to opt out of TSA screenings.
“It is both improper and inefficient for the TSA to serve as the administrator, quality assurance regulator, operator and auditor of its own activities,” Mica wrote to airport officials. “Most comparable international airport systems operate with a public/private screening operation under government supervision and regulation.
“Better performance, customer service and more efficient operations can be achieved at reduced costs if this system is adopted and properly implemented both at your airport and across the country.”
TSA officials declined to respond to Mica’s assertion directly, but agency administrator John Pistole told reporters Tuesday that the agency was mindful of customer complaints and always striving to improve.
MSP services roughly 32 million fliers every year. If the airport switched to private security, it would be the second-largest airport in the U.S. without Transportation Security Administration screeners, behind San Francisco International (37 million). In total, 16 airports have opted out of the TSA in favor of private screeners; others include airports in Kansas City, Rochester (N.Y.), Sioux Falls (S.D.) and Jackson Hole (Wyo.).
Mica’s letter was discussed at a recent board meeting, where officials questioned whether private contractors could do a better job screening passengers than TSA agents. Afterwards, airport commission staff were asked to research what opting out would entail, including talking with other airports that have done it to gauge their experiences.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a really formal process at this point,” Hogan said, adding that there is no timeline yet for a decision, and that it was unlikely to be concluded by the board’s December meeting. “I’d say staff were doing some homework, to look into it and report back to the board.”
The TSA was founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, following criticism that security officials allowed the terrorists to board planes armed with edged blades like box-cutters. But unknown to many until recently was a little clause tucked away in the law that allows airports that allowed the TSA to take over their security screenings to opt out after two years.
MSP isn’t the only airport looking into the switch following Mica’s letter. Officials with Orlando International Airport, slightly larger than MSP with 33.7 million fliers annually, told the Associated Press that they were mulling a similar change.
The key question: Can security screenings be more efficient with private contractors, while conforming to federal safety guidelines and not increasing the airport’s liability?
Orlando’s Sanford International Airport says the answer to that question is yes. Orlando’s second-largest airport services a little over 2 million passengers a year and will begin the switch to private screeners in early 2011. From the Associated Press:
CEO Larry Dale said members of the board that runs Sanford were impressed after watching private screeners at airports in Rochester, N.Y., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. He said TSA agents could do better at customer service.
“Some of them are a little testy,” said Dale, whose airport handles 2 million passengers a year. “And we work hard to get passengers and airlines. And to have it undone by a personality problem?”
Sanford Airport’s experience, in turn, prompted Mica’s letter — the airport is in his central Florida constituency.
“Past studies have indicated that private screening operations’ performance is equal to or ‘statistically significantly better than’ all federal operations,” Mica wrote, adding that most TSA “innovations” came out of private screening operations. [PDF]
Jumping way ahead of the gun here, let’s say that MSP does boot the TSA and hire private firms instead. Would it mean the end of the expensive full-body scanners and pat downs that stand at the center of a recent uproar from privacy advocates and some travelers?
“All commercial airports are regulated by TSA whether the actual screening is performed by TSA officers or private companies,” said TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon. “TSA sets the security standards that must be followed and includes the use of enhanced pat downs and imaging technology, if installed at the airport.”
“Private screeners would be subject to the same regulations,” MSP’s Hogan said. That would include using the same millimeter wave screeners currently in MSP, which show fairly detailed full-body images to a security officer in a room apart from the screening area.
Hogan said no decision is imminent, adding that MSP’s report is unlikely to be finished by the December board meeting.
Mica letter urging opt-out. [PDF]