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Ditch TSA workers? Airports no longer allowed to 'opt out'

The Transportation Security Administration has said it won’t allow any more airports to “opt out” and bring in private security contractors in place of the agency’s federal workers.

The Transportation Security Administration has said it won’t allow any more airports to “opt out” and bring in private security contractors in place of the agency’s federal workers. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who in the fall wrote a letter to 100 airports urging them to ditch TSA agents, said it is “unimaginable” that TSA would end “the most successfully performing passenger screening program we’ve had over the last decade.”

Despite staunch opt-out support from Mica — the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — TSA Administrator John Pistole said Friday that he had reviewed the private contractor screening program as part of a more general review of TSA policies and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports because he did not see “any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time.”

In a statement, Mica said, "I intend to launch a full investigation and review of the matter.”

Since the TSA was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal law has allowed airports the option of using private screeners. But few of the nation's roughly 460 commercial airports have done so.

Currently, San Francisco International, Kansas City International and 14 other airports use private contractors to screen airline passengers. Under the program, the private company conducts an airport’s passenger screening according to TSA’s rules and policies and under TSA supervision.

“TSA will continue to sustain the program at the current level to compare the effectiveness of federal vs. private screeners,” said TSA spokesperson Greg Soule. “The information we have to date shows the performance of TSA officers and private screeners is comparable.”

Several airports had been pursuing the use of private screeners. Gary Cyr, director of Missouri’s Springfield-Branson National Airport, said he was “flabbergasted” by the two-sentence TSA memo he received Friday letting him know that the airport’s application to “opt out” of the federal passenger screening program had been denied.

“We got no response as to why, what for or otherwise,” said Cyr. “It’s the shortest important letter I ever got.”

Five other airports — all in Montana — also were looking to use private security screeners and received the same response Friday from the TSA. “Basically it was a form letter saying that our application had been denied because there would be no benefit to TSA,” said Cindi Martin, director of Montana’s Glacier Park International Airport.

Some government officials and unions representing TSA workers applauded Pistole's decision. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., a ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement that ending the acceptance of new applications for the program “makes sense from a budgetary and counterterrorism perspective.”

“The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employee, in a statement. The union represents TSA screeners.

Mixed reaction
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which is actively organizing TSA officers at some airports, also thinks Pistole did the right thing. “It keeps this important work in the hands of federal employees, where it belongs,” Kelly said in a statement.

But in Washington, D.C., where more than 200 airport staff members were attending a legislative conference, Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International–North America, said his organization opposes the TSA's stance. “Nobody here is happy about Pistole’s decision. Even airports that had no interest in opting out aren’t happy. They thought those airports that want the option should be able to pursue that.”

Principato said he is keeping an eye on the 16 airports already in the program. “We didn’t think TSA would make the move to not let anyone else in. We hope they won’t expand on the mistake by shrinking the current program.”

Decisions, decisions
In the meantime, several airports that were considering the screening partnership program are contemplating their next moves.

“We still plan to opt out,” said Larry Dale, airport director at Orlando Sanford International in Florida, who planned to file his airport’s application this week. “My guess is they’ll send it back saying they’re not taking applications. But we’re taking advantage of something we’re allowed to do. We’re put too much time and investment into researching this not to go forward.”

“We’re just not sure what to think at this point,” said Chris Jensen, airport director at Missoula International. “So we’re going to wait and watch.”

Martin of Montana’s Glacier Park International Airport said her airport may re-apply. “The program is not dead. The reason our airport authority applied to the screening partnership program was because of TSA staffing cuts at our airport and customer service issue. Those issues still haven’t been resolved.”

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.