Is TSA Two-Faced on Private Airport Screening?

The ongoing discussion of a “systemic failure” that led to the Christmas Day underpants bomber incident got me thinking about related issues, including the current status of the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP), which allows airports to opt-out of TSA-provided screening and contract with private security firms to provide passenger and baggage screening services.

As you may recall, last February Reason colleague Bob Poole noted TSA’s apparent attempts to cover up a consultant-prepared report that suggested not only that private screeners are outperforming TSA screeners at participating airports, but that TSA should expland the SPP and add more flexibility for contractors to innovate to drive down costs and improve performance. That wasn’t the first report along such linesâ??see Bob’s discussion of a 2004 GAO study here. Back to this in a minute.

Since Bob’s May 2009 update on SPP (well worth a read for program background), it turns out that several more small airportsâ??all in Montanaâ??have begun participating in the SPP. As of today, there are 17 airports in the SPP: San Francisco International Airport, Kansas City International Airport, Greater Rochester International Airport, Sioux Falls Regional Airport, Jackson Hole Airport, Tupelo Regional Airport, Key West International Airport, Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport, Roswell Industrial Air Center, and seven recently-added Montana airports (Havre, Lewistown, Sydney, Glasgow, Wolf Point, Glendive, and Miles City).

And as reported by the Helena Independent-Record in late December, more Montana airports in Butte, Missoula, Kalispell and West Yellowstone are planning similar moves. One airport director explains why:

…The TSA was formed shortly after 9/11 to increase security at airports across the nation. According to Cindi Martin, director of Kalispell’s Glacier Park International Airport, the creation of the TSA was a necessary reaction to the tragedy. But she said Congress knew even then that private companies could one day do this job. “That was always the goal, and we are just moving toward that,” she said.

At her airport, business is very seasonal, and the number of employees provided by TSA is not.

“We need to be able to respond in the summer when our deployments triple,” she said. “Right now we can’t. We think a private firm will be more flexible to our needs.” If the privatization request is approved, the TSA would continue to oversee operations at each airport. It would continue to fund security services and make sure private employees go through the same training and meet the same standards as TSA employees across the country.

There’s something later in the article that I found jawdropping, but it needs some explanation. I started this post mentioning studies demonstrating strong private sector performance in the SPP program that TSA seemed to want to wish away. TSA went so far as to draft their own internal report that ignored major costs in order to make themselves look better than the privates by comparison (a move pulled straight from the Anti-Privatization 101 playbook). In reporting this apparent whitewash, Bob mentioned that TSA told the U.S. Government Accountability Office “that the agency maintains a neutral position on the SPP and neither encourages or discourages airports from applying to participate.” Bob has also pointed out an obvious limiting constraint dampening interest in the SPP programâ??namely that TSA runs the SPP program and serves as the security regulator for the airports, so any big airport wanting to opt-out faces the uncomfortable task of asking TSA for permission to kick out and replace its own screeners.

As if there was any doubt about TSA’s half-hearted approach to privatized screening, the Review piece laid it to rest (emphasis mine):

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said if an airport decides to opt out, employees at the facility can be hired on by the private firm who wins the bid, or take another government position at a federalized facility.

He also said he feels more comfortable flying in and out of airports that have screeners employed by TSA than by a private company.

TSA is in there providing security for security’s sake,” he said. “Do you want security by the lowest bidder?

Not exactly a ringing endorsement from a TSA spokesman for a program described this way on TSA’s website:

We developed the Screening Partnership Program, or SPP, in order to benefit from private-sector expertise and know-how. Airports work in partnership with us to hire a qualified private screening company to provide screening services under federal oversight.

Hmmmm…so which is it, TSA? Are you more interested in protecting the traveling public, or, like the typical government agency, are you more interested in protecting agency largesse and preventing competition with private providers? With evidence supporting the notion that privatization brings better security (not to mention the fact that private screeners are ubiquitous throughout Canada and Europe), you’d think that TSA’s mission would demand that it do a whole lot more to encourage privatization, as opposed to seemingly trying to stack the deck in favor of TSA’s own (flawed) security product.

UPDATE: A reader emailed today that the news article linked above was subsequently corrected to reflect that the comments on “security by the lowest bidder” were misattributed to TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird and were actually made by a TSA screener interviewed at one of the Montana airports. The corrected article is here. Apologies to Mr. Baird for the confusion caused by the multiple article versions; I’ve been misquoted before myself and can relate.

Still though, the main thrust of my points still stand—our aviation security system is not set up to encourage competition and innovation, and TSA seems to be one of the obstacles standing in the way, along with our friends on Capitol Hill that designed the system to begin with.