Airports commission studying replacing TSA screening system with private contractors at MSP

A Transportation Security Administration screener scans a passenger at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Joe Skipper
A Transportation Security Administration screener scans a passenger at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Tuesday.

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.”

Opt-out provision
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?

Maybe not.

“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.

Further reading

TSA’s opt-out FAQ.

Mica’s bullet-point list of TSA criticisms. [PDF]

Mica letter urging opt-out. [PDF]

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 11/24/2010 - 11:12 am.

    Let’s be clear: privatizing a function may be more efficient, but it does not limit the scope of government intervention. Hiring a private service under government oversight to perform actions the government ought not be doing is still wrong.

    That said, it is interesting that government cannot be trusted to perform what is assumed to be a legitimate function.

  2. Submitted by Molly MacGregor on 11/24/2010 - 12:08 pm.

    What’s the cost difference? Is this about eliminating a bunch of jobs that are currently filled by folks with minimum skills but now earning a wage above the poverty line with benefits and replacing it with contract workers earning $12-$15 an hour and no benefits? And what is the private company and how do they stand on contributions to Congressman Mica, and against Oberstar??? Follow the money! We have a bash government rhetoric but no one examines the underlying question – is this a service that has made us safer? would the 9/11 bombers have gotten through TSA? eliminate the service if it is not performing.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/24/2010 - 12:25 pm.

    Let’s be clear, the private sector is not more efficient than the public sector. What You’ll get is lower paid, poorly trained personnel doing the same job but not as well. And it will cost more, come CEO and his cadre of executives will make millions. The private security at our airport has already demonstrated it’s inefficiency, and lax procedures, failing to properly check vehicles entering the service entrances at the airport. If security doesn’t do what it’s doing now, and more, you don’t have security folks.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/24/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    Are people’s memories that bad in this country? The TSA was created because the private contractors which were in charge on 9/11 were not doing the job well at all. I think I read somewhere that many of the private contractor employees were hired back at better pay. Essentially, the only reason one privatizes is to cut pay for the workers and allow the big shots to pay themselves big bonuses. Who are geniuses coming up with these ideas for “innovation”?

  5. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 11/24/2010 - 01:15 pm.

    I’m not advocating for anyone. I’ve flown a lot and seen the good and the bad.

    I think for most everyone, the real problem is the scanners and searches, regardless of who conducts them. Anytime an image is stored, even for a few seconds, as a digital copy, it has the potential to survive. It’s easy to see why people would consider a naked outline of themselves to be a violation of privacy. It is also easy to see why the aggressive pat-downs would be found to be invasive by travellers.

    As usual, we’re trying to fix a symptom. The question for us isn’t TSA or private contractors. The real question is, as Americans, what do we value?

    If absolute security is the answer, then be prepared to walk throught the airport with machine-gun nests outside and flocks of assault-rifle toting Army personnel inside, multiple searches and confiscation of anything that may appear to be a weapon, like Indians do.

    If absolute freedom is the answer, then be prepared to die in a terrorist attack, be prepared to have friends and relatives dieand be prepared to do it without blaming an Administration for being soft, for not doing enough, or for that matter blaming anyone other than the perpetrators.

    My guess is America is somewhere inbetween but as usual, will probably get drawn into the distraction of TSA vs Private Contractors, thus keeping us from actually having to deal with a tough decision.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/24/2010 - 01:51 pm.

    Andrew makes an important point. The TSA may have overlooked an important part of their job (customer service), but more important than the people is the process.

    Why are we not listening to the undisputed experts in airport security?

    Israeli Security Expert: TSA Procedures ‘Hysterical’

    “A top Israeli airport security expert says the new screening procedures being implemented by the Transportation Security Administration are a “hysterical” reaction to the terrorist threat.

    Ben Gurion Airport’s former director of security Pini Schiff warns that the TSA pat-downs and body scanners won’t be effective in pinpointing terrorists.

    “When you are wasting time and when you are wasting manpower and the level of service to the passengers is so low – something is missing in the way of finding the passenger you are looking for,” he said.”

    http://tinyurl.com/2fbn7pg

  7. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 11/24/2010 - 02:10 pm.

    You missed my point, Mr. Swift. My point was not to give an answer to the question, but rather to pose the question.

    Whether something is effective or not is a question that can be answered only once we have decided on a goal.

    In business terms, it makes no sense to design an assembly line if you don’t know what the final product is going to be.

    America right now is designing a process without having the necessary discussion about what we would like the product to be, and that was my point.

  8. Submitted by Bob Hawbaker on 11/24/2010 - 02:11 pm.

    Could it be because someone wants a lucrative contract with MAC? There’s no reason to assume that privately contracted screeners will be more effective, more efficient and less invasive. Suppose Rep. Mica has friends who want to get into the airport screening business?

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/24/2010 - 02:57 pm.

    From “Right wing is ginning up the outrage against TSA to privatize airport security and prevent unionization” (blog.buzzflash.com/tag/EditorBlog at truthout.org).

    BuzzFlash notes that… “conservative Republican Congressman John Mica … will likely become the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.” BuzzFlash also notes that TSA employees were recently notified they soon will be able to vote on whether or not to be unionized (oh my; that won’t please Mr. Mica).

    Another article I saw today (but can’t remember where) reminded me that the most likely private managers of security checkpoints would be the airlines, which did this work prior to the TSA’s establishment. At MSP, and no doubt at many major airports, passengers flying on any of several airlines pass through the same checkpoint. Which airline, then, would pay for the privatized service? Which would train its employees? Which would negotiate wages and deal with the EXACT SAME COMPLAINTS the TSA now receives.

    I already miss Representative Oberstar a whole bunch.

  10. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/24/2010 - 04:25 pm.

    Two things make airplanes safe in the post-911 era of air travel. 1) Cockpits have a secured door. 2) Passengers know the game, and some are willing to step up and smack down.

    Where is the outrage from those decriers of the Patriot Act, and other Bush era invasions of privacy? You know, the stuff that was used to galvanize the Bush hatred. Warrantless wiretaps, terror suspects held in Gitmo, the war in Afghanistan. Those have all ended, right? What about civilian trials in NY City for terror suspects? We are doing that, right?

    Everything that Bush was hated for continues today, and in most cases on a grander scale. But, we’re OK, because we hoped for change.

    Happy air travels.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/24/2010 - 05:02 pm.

    The story I posted a link to speaks to that exact question, Andrew.

    According to the Israelis, we’re trying to locate bombs instead of bombers….they seem to have had pretty good luck doing it their way; maybe we should listen.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/24/2010 - 08:31 pm.

    It all seems pretty straightforward to me. The optimal level of terrorism is not zero, just like the optimal level of murder, drunken driving, and car crashes is not zero. That is, even if all this extra security is working, I can’t imagine it is worth the costs, and I bet we could “save” far more lives by using the money on something else.

  13. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 11/24/2010 - 09:22 pm.

    I remember private-firm screeners. Many (no, not all)seemed to be of entry-level skill and often were inattentive and seemingly indifferent to their jobs. The quality of their work varied greatly. I wouldn’t have relied on them to keep anything smaller than a howitzer off an airplane.

    The TSA takeover changed that enormously. Suddenly, we had smartly dressed people who could speak proper English (no, this has nothing to do with race, just education), usually dealt courtesouly with travelers, were paying attention to their work and who displayed a sometimes-annoying zealousness. Part of the great improvement was that I felt that screening was being taken seriously — performed by federal employees responsible for the quality of their work, not minimum-wage people wearing the often ill-fitting uniforms of a private “security” company also employed at ballparks, movie megaplexes and shopping malls.

    I simply cannot understand people’s refusal to go through a scanner or their rage at the consequences of refusing. The scanner is utterly impersonal; the person viewing your skin can’t identify you, and I’d bet that the biggest problem for the scanner monitors will be boredom.

    I’ve had a pacemaker for four years, which has meant I cannot go through one of the magnetic detectors or be wanded but must be frisked. (Happily for me, Boston Sci says I can go though either type of scanner!) So the frisking now is more invasive? Well, then, go through the scanner or just put up with it (some workers are going to be rude or stupid — it’s a mathematical certainty). It’s a cheap inconvenience for staying alive.

    I’ve been to Israel several times and always have felt safe — both flying there and being there (It’s not what you think from watching TV news.) But I can’t believe its methods would work in the United States — not only because of an overly large fear of “racial profiling” but just because of the sheer volume! Israel, a nation one-tenth the size of Minnesota with a population of 7.5 million, has one passenger airport (two if the seaside resort of Eilat takes direct flights) and a few score million people air travelers each year. The United States has, if I recall, more than 250 airline-passenger airports and enormous millions of travelers. I cannot imagine that Israel’s intense methods could be replicated here. Profiling aside, how much labor would have to go into background checks, interviews and on-site behavior screening of hundreds of millions of passengers — including every gray-haired grannie flying from Grand Forks to Grand Island?

    What would work better here? I don’t know, but privatizing screening (no doubt to the lowest bidder, at that!) wasn’t the answer before. I don’t know why anyone thinks it would be now.

  14. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/25/2010 - 08:00 am.

    Richard S. (#12): “…I bet we could ‘save’ far more lives by using the money on something else.”

    Thank you for asking same question that puzzles me about the kabillions spent on the world-wide War on Terror during which we have been responsible for the deaths not just of American soldiers, but for tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis and, now, Pakistanis.

    In today’s America, about .001% of those without health insurance (and therefore access to ongoing preventive care and disease management) will die. Of the 50 million now uninsured, that means 50,000 per year will die. Unnecessarily, since we could prevent these deaths while saving $400 billion per year on health care if we instituted a national health care plan like Canada’s.

    Apparently, another 90,000 or so die because of medical and hospital errors. Surely we could improve this statistic.

    I’d also guess that building schools and improving agriculture in places like Afghanistan would save many more lives than those our terrible nighttime drone attacks now take.

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/25/2010 - 08:40 am.

    But really, what did we expect? After 9/11, we told the government: Don’t let this happen again! “This” meant the hijacking and weaponisation of loaded airplanes. Everyone understood that if something like “this” did happen again, heads in Washington would roll. That’s a pretty good incentive for government agencies to act, and possibly overreact. Which is what they’ve pretty clearly done with recently instituted airport-security policies.

    But we asked for it! Which makes efforts to describe the anti-TSA outcry as an authentically libertarian reaction against the Nanny State so maddening. Like the majority of tea-partiers who denounce “government” in the abstract while also telling pollsters that they’re perfectly happy with Social Security and Medicare, a large portion of those who claim to support a rollback of enhanced airport screening would undoubtedly demand blood from politicians and bureaucrats moments after a successful terrorist attack. Americans don’t want a minimal state. They want a minimal state that provides all the protections of a maximal state.

    Children have trouble accepting the need for trade-offs among competing goods. But adults—not to mention citizens of a free society—should be more sophisticated. They should be capable of grasping the elementary point that government services and low taxes, like freedom and security, are goods that stand in sharp tension with each other. And yet here we are, witnessing just the latest in a series of public temper-tantrums over the fact that not all good things go together.

  16. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/26/2010 - 12:13 am.

    The outrage over scanners and screeners is totally right wing instigated. The privitization of screening and security is the desired result. Are we that stupid and memory challenged that we can’t remember that private screening using mostly immigrant, minimum wage workers was why the TSA took over screening in the first place. There was an immediate upgrade in professionalism as a result and I for one, a frequent flier, feel a lot more secure because of it. You can count on “for profit” security firms paying minimum wage and utilizing a much less skilled workforce. I dispute Craig Westover’s assertion that the TSA screeners are not successful or are doing a poor job. Conservative commentators like Fox and their stooges are ginning up this stuff to make it seem that the federal government is extending its reach. I agree that it is disingenuous they find pat downs appalling and not a word about the intrusive invasion of privacy that accompanies the Patriot Act. Pure hogwash.

  17. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/26/2010 - 09:50 am.

    Bernice (#9):

    Tell us what you miss about Rep. Oberstar. Was it what he did to earn the NRA’s endorsement (Sept. 2010), or perhaps his pro-life stance?

    Richard (#12):

    Point well made.

    To put it in perspective, we have killed more Americans on the roads of little Minnesota since the beginning of the Gulf Wars than have been killed in the Gulf Wars. Where is the outrage?

    We kill about 400 Minnesotans on our roads each year, about one each day. Most of those are preventable, but with a cost; the cost of convenience. If the state speed limit was changed to 25 MPH, the state road death toll could be reduced from 400 to 40. Why don’t we do it? It is the acceptable price we pay for driving around as fast as we care to drive.

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/28/2010 - 10:04 am.

    I suspect there might be more people out there who are OK with stiff airline security protocols than the talking heads are admitting right now.

  19. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/28/2010 - 03:39 pm.

    I agree that most are OK with the new TSA security protocols, including many that were apoplectic regarding the Bush-ear invasions of privacy.

  20. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/28/2010 - 06:22 pm.

    Good point Steve!

  21. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/29/2010 - 02:18 pm.

    Bernice (#14):

    “One of the largest union-administered health-insurance funds in New York is dropping coverage for the children of more than 30,000 low-wage home attendants, union officials said. The union blamed financial problems it said were caused by the state’s health department and new national health-insurance requirements.”

    For the whole story of how our new national health care law (obamacare) is causing children of union workers to be denied healthcare:

    http://itmakessenseblog.com/2010/11/28/seiu-union-drops-health-coverage-for-workers%E2%80%99-children/

    Obamacare is unraveling ahead of schedule.

  22. Submitted by Kieran Hughes on 12/06/2010 - 06:05 pm.

    I’m sure that the fact the TSA employees are union members has nothing to do with Mica’s efforts to put them out of work. Republican’s don’t bust unions, do they?

  23. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/07/2010 - 12:41 pm.

    Kieran (#22):

    The evidence at hand would indicate that Democrats and their Obamacare are anti-union, as it is causing low-wage union workers to lose healthcare for their children, effective January 1st.

    Perhaps workers will need to de-certify their union to get their employers to provide health coverage for their children.

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