Special Report

Smokescreening

Privatizing the most miserable job in aviation won't do anyone much good, though it may do it faster.

By 5.26.04

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The recently released results of a Transportation Security Administration pilot program show that privately-run airport screeners are as effective as federal operations -- which is to say they perform in an equally poor manner. Then again, due to TSA constraints on the private screeners, this lackluster outcome did not come as a surprise to anyone.

Conscious of these limitations, airports are still considering paying out of their own pockets for increased screening services. Beginning November 19, commercial airports will be allowed to opt-out of a federally deployed screening workforce. John Mica (R-Fla.) Congress's outspoken critic of TSA, says that nearly a quarter of the country's commercial airports are considering the switch, and more may follow.

The poor performance by private contractors was due to a number of arcane and arbitrary restrictions from TSA. The pilot program private contractors had no leverage to implement innovative training methods to encourage their staff.

Bearing Point, a consulting firm which issued the report as an independent evaluator, admitted that the design of the program "severely limits the opportunities for differences in the two models." TSA was also fully responsible for all hiring and firing decisions, as well as daily supervision.

How, really, could they expect winning results from airport screeners, if the job is about as exciting and rewarding as a manning a checkout line at Wal-Mart? The importance of airport screening excellence is obvious but TSA constructive measures have yet to acknowledge that the daily grind of the job can wear people down. The odds of detecting forbidden objects are very slim, so screeners tend to approach tasks with the expectation they will find nothing.

TSA red tape bound the private contractors' hands behind their backs. TSA officials routinely denied requests to train screeners in bomb detection or in the interviewing suspicious passengers. Frustrated contractors at Greater Rochester International, one of the five airports involved in the pilot program, ignored protocol and sought out bomb detection trainers on their own.

DESPITE THESE HASSLES, private screeners did have one giant advantage in the report, the reason for the airports' continued interest: much shorter lines. Perhaps they did not screen passengers any better than TSA, but private contractors completed their job much more efficiently, which may translate into more flights.

The contrast is less than a shocker. TSA is notorious for its unproductive staffing methods that have resulted in longer waiting periods. It has no mechanism in place to increase screeners as demand rises, and its screener allocation method is arbitrary and capricious. Some larger airports like Los Angeles International are understaffed by 20 percent. Smaller airports like Jacksonville Airport Authority, which intends to opt-out in the fall, are burdened with far too many screeners.

Now there are fewer than 45,000 screeners due to a budgetary cap issued by Congress last year. That number hardly meets the needs of all of our 429 commercial airports. Screeners already have a very high attrition rate, and this is augmented by firings due to TSA's incomplete background checks. Last year, 1,200 screeners were fired because of lying on their applications or because of their criminal histories.

Transportation experts predict this summer will be the biggest travel period since September 11, 2001, and many of our largest airports worry that they won't have enough screeners to accommodate the masses. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and other airports already experience screening lines that last over an hour, and the wait can jump to as long as five hours during peek periods. Overwhelmed, screeners do not have the chance to inspect bags and passengers with suitable attention. Screening shortages do not simply create annoyances, but security risks.

THESE BOTTLENECKS MAY influence a number of airports to opt-out of the federal program. By law, private screeners must perform equally or better to federal screeners currently in place to maintain a contract.

This shouldn't be difficult, but TSA's role in managing private screening operations is still unclear. The Government Accounting Office issued a report criticizing the agency's heavy hand in the pilot program and said the results of the report were not useful.

The poor performance by both private and federal screeners in the Bearing Point report makes it clear that new training methods must be implemented. A rewards-based system or one with more frequent security checks may liven up the humdrum daily tasks of screeners. Screeners should also be cross-trained to work with passengers and luggage, adding greater staffing flexibility. These methods are currently under consideration by private screening contractors, but the amount of freedom that they will have is still unknown.

That TSA can't even conduct a proper pilot program should be evidence enough that it is in over its head by micromanaging the staffing needs of 429 airports. Private screeners should come as a welcome relief from the excruciating waiting periods and insufficient screening tactics of the current system.

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