Airports that want private screeners not getting TSA's help

TSA denied applicants for the first time in 2011
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Airports need guidance when applying for private security screeners, but the Transportation Security Administration isn't giving it to them, the Government Accountability Office says.

Some airport operators have struggled to prove that private screeners would be most cost effective than TSA screeners because they don't know TSA's costs, the GAO says in a report (.pdf) released Dec. 6. Some also said they don't how enough about how TSA grades applicants, and many weren't assigned a point of contact after they applied.

Every airport that has reapplied for private screeners after being denied has eventually been approved.

TSA approved a private airport screening workforce for the first time in 2005. It didn't deny any applicants until January 2011, a month in which it turned down all five pending applicants--four Montana airports and Springfield-Branson National Airport in Missouri.

That January, the agency announced it would only approve those who could show a clear advantage over federal screeners--though all the applicants denied that month had applied before the announcement.

TSA ended that requirement the next year, prompted by the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The law requires TSA to approve private-screener applicants if it doesn't think they'll compromise security or cost efficiency.

Three of the Montana airports TSA had rejected later reapplied, and TSA approved all three in 2012.

In June, TSA approved the Orlando, Fla., airport after it applied for the third time in about a year. Other major airports TSA has approved for private screeners are those in San Francisco, Sacramento, Calif., Kansas City, Mo., and Rochester, N.Y.

It total, 16 airports have private screeners, and another six have been approved and are working to hire contractors.

The most frequently cited advantages of private screeners, according to a GAO survey of airport operators, are better customer service and greater flexibility to alter staffing according to seasonal and daily fluctuations in passenger volume.

The survey respondents named few disadvantages, the GAO says. Some voiced concern that a transition to private screeners might be disruptive.

TSA, though, does not compare the performance of federal screeners to private ones. The agency monitors screener performance in general, but the GAO says it should track the types of screeners separately.

That would let the agency see how performance changes after an airport transitions to private screeners.

TSA did hire a private consultant in 2007 to compare federal and private screeners. The contractor found that private screeners were the same as or better than federal screeners in all the skills it measured, including threat detection rate, passenger wait time and customer satisfaction.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-208 (.pdf)

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