Airport industry presses TSA for guidance on using private screeners

The Transportation Security Administration should provide airport managers with guidance on using private screeners as soon as possible so they can begin planning before a federal deadline next year, an airport industry representative said Tuesday.

TSA awarded the first phase of a contract last week to BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., to evaluate the performance of private screening companies at airports in Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. The airports are part of a pilot program to compare the effectiveness and service of private screeners against federal workers at 436 airports under the jurisdiction of TSA.

When TSA was created almost two years ago, Congress stipulated that airports must use federal workers to screen passengers and baggage for weapons and explosives, except at the five airports in the pilot program. However, legislators included a provision that permits airports to opt out of the federal program and hire private screeners starting in November 2004. The evaluation contract with BearingPoint is part of TSA's requirement to develop a program describing how airports can exercise that flexibility.

"We're hoping the evaluation will be as comprehensive as possible and will be used by the congressional committees and TSA to design an effective opt-out program," said Stephen Van Beek, senior vice president for policy and development at Airports Council International-North America, which represents local, regional and state governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports in the United States and Canada.

Van Beek said the airport industry is seeking guidance about the opt-out program by the spring in order to make decisions and workforce changes by November 2004.

A spokeswoman from BearingPoint said the evaluation began Oct. 1 and will end within 45 days. However, she said, TSA had not yet given the company an OK to discuss the contract or evaluation in more detail. Representatives from TSA could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Van Beek said the airport industry hopes BearingPoint will evaluate the overall security provided by private workers versus federal workers, taking into account different work processes and rules that airports in the pilot program have that might affect the performance of private firms when compared with TSA.

Van Beek said the airport industry would be looking for specific comparisons in the areas of flexibility, training, job functions and responsiveness.

For example, he said, the evaluation should look at whether airports with private screeners have more flexibility to meet service needs during peak hours. Airport managers have reported they generally need more workers in the morning and afternoon, but not during other parts of the day.

Another concern the evaluation should examine is whether workers are cross-trained to screen both passengers and baggage, Van Beek said. "Under the current TSA arrangement, some people were hired just as passenger screeners and can't do baggage screening," he said. "What you really need is a mobile workforce that can react to service needs."

Van Beek said he has heard anecdotal reports from airports in the pilot program that they have more flexibility with private screeners. He said the airport industry generally perceives the federal government as being bureaucratic and less responsive to airport needs. However, he added that the best-case scenario for airports would be to have both a TSA program and an opt-out program.

"Ultimately, I think airports on this whole issue are very pragmatic and agnostic," he said.