Aviation-screening firms may get some liability protection

The Homeland Security Department would like to give private aviation-screening companies limited liability protection if screeners fail to prevent a terrorist attack.

David Stone, assistant secretary of the department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told Congress last week that the agency would submit a recommendation on the issue within the next 30 days to the science and technology division.

When Congress created TSA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks it created the federalized screening force but allowed five airports to contract with private screeners. Under that law, other airports last November also could request permission from TSA to opt out of the federal program, but Stone told the committee only one out of more than 400 airports have chosen to do so.

The airports and companies would like to receive protection under the so-called SAFETY Act, which limits liability for companies if their products or services fail to prevent terrorist attacks. "I'm told by some airports and companies that they're waiting to see how that falls out before they make a determination," Stone said during testimony before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

Stone added that airports also have said the success of the federal screening program has dissuaded them from leaving it. Over the last year, airports said wait times have declined and screeners' performance has stabilized.

"[Airports] are not very interested in reintroducing all of that churn of going back now after they finally got what they believe is a professional force in place," Stone said.

TSA has been analyzing private-sector control of airport security for more than two years and argued that the five-airport test project has been successful, showing that private-sector screeners are the equals of federal screeners.

Stone told lawmakers that if an airport is approved by TSA to opt out of the federal program, then the agency provides the same level of funding that the airport receives for the federal program to pay for the private screeners.

Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, who has been a proponent of private screeners to save taxpayer dollars, peppered Stone with questions about the law and how quickly the department would make a decision about its applicability to private airport screeners.

Other lawmakers have been critical of regulations promulgated under the statute, arguing that the department has implemented too many bureaucratic hurdles to obtain the liability protection, thus discouraging companies from applying for it.

"While this process is designed to be a straightforward and simple one, the chairmen were disappointed to learn that the [department] has received relatively few SAFETY Act applications and has yet to designate a single technology," three House chairmen wrote in a letter to the department last year.

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