updated 10/22/2004 4:45:13 PM ET 2004-10-22T20:45:13

With a deadline looming, the government has yet to come up with guidelines for commercial airports that want to replace federal baggage and passenger screeners with privately employed workers.

Officials at some of the nation’s 445 airports say they are frustrated with the 2-year-old government workforce. They say federal rules do not allow the flexibility to reassign workers to handle surges in air travel, which sometimes result in long waits for passengers at security checkpoints.

But those considering hiring private companies say they cannot make a decision because they lack crucial information.

The application period begins Nov. 19 and will likely end three weeks later, but the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has not announced qualified private security companies. Nor has it established criteria for airports to participate in the program.

The agency has not even prepared a final application for airports to fill out.

George Doughty, executive director of Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa., said he needed to know who would be liable for security breaches or terrorist attacks and how the contracts with private companies would will be managed.

“The devil’s in the details,” Doughty said.

Bob Parker, a spokesman for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said more specifics were needed before a decision could be made.

Liability an issue in proceeding
Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said the agency had set up an e-mail address so airports could submit specific questions. Until then, she said, “we don’t have a specific date on final guidance at this time as we continue to work a few issues, including liability.”

Congress created the TSA to take over airport screening after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks drew attention to shortcomings with the privately employed workers. Undercover agents routinely slipped fake weapons, knives and explosives past the poorly trained, poorly paid screeners. Morale was low, and turnover was high.

Now, about 47,000 government workers at 440 airports check passengers and bags for bombs and weapons. But the law that turned screening over to the TSA also allowed airports to go back to private screeners, under TSA supervision, beginning Nov. 19.

Some airport directors think security should remain a federal responsibility, saying private companies would put profit before the public interest.

Many airports are happy with the TSA screeners’ performance and plan to continue with them.

“It’s working here,” said Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for Logan International Airport in Boston.

Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, said 20 to 30 airports, including some of the nation’s largest, would opt out of the current system.

“It is directly attributable to the failure of TSA to manage the workforce properly,” van Beek said.

Federal screeners fight for jobs
Federal screeners, unhappy at the prospect of losing their jobs just two years after most of them started, held a news conference Tuesday in Detroit to oppose turning over screening duties to private companies.

“It’s bad for morale, which is bad for security,” said Peter Winch, an organizer for the American Federal of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners at 60 airports.

Airline bombs

Private screeners already are working at five airports under a pilot program Congress ordered when it created the TSA.

Those airports use screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested by the government. Officials at all five — in San Francisco; Tupelo, Miss.; Rochester, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. — say they are pleased with the way the private screeners have performed.

“Flexibility and creativity are the pluses,” said Mike McCarron, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport. The security company, Covenant Aviation Security, monitors security lines with closed-circuit television and moves screeners around to cope with the lines. The company has also hired people to handle baggage exclusively, reducing the number of screeners injured by lifting heavy bags.

Joe McBride, a spokesman for Kansas City International Airport, said the airport’s contractor, FirstLine Security, had made sure that there were enough screeners at each of the airport’s checkpoints.

Terry Anderson, executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport, said he would not switch to government screeners because the private screeners there were doing “a fabulous job.”

Details of the plan
Under the new system:

  • Private screeners would have to meet higher standards than their pre-Sept. 11 counterparts. They would be re required to have the same qualifications as federal workers: They must be high school graduates and U.S. citizens, and they would have to pass background checks.
  • The private companies would have to give their screeners pay and benefits comparable to those of the government screeners.
  • Private companies would be based in the United States.
  • The federal government would regulate airport screening, and screeners would be supervised directly by federal security directors at airports.

The TSA has said it will try to set up a program that gives current federal screeners priority for employment at private companies.

Studies by the Government Accountability Office, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general and a private company showed that there was no difference between the performance or cost of federal and contract screeners, although the studies’ authors said the sample was too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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