The Transportation Security Administration now holds a monopoly on airport security screening. If you want to fly, you must pass through TSA. Thing is, not many people were aware there was an alternative. There was, but no longer.

A program that replaced government security screeners at airports with private screeners has been stopped. Under the Screening Partnership Program, 16 airports replaced TSA screeners with private contractors. These contractors had to meet TSA standards and were overseen by TSA.

Security was not sacrificed under this program.

These private security personnel were just as effective as TSA. Administrator John Pistole said as much, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also found that the private screeners were as good as the TSA.

Yet, on January 28, 2010, the Missouri Springfield-Branson Airport applied for private screeners and was rejected. Pistole followed up by saying all other applications would also be denied. As quoted by CNN and other outlets, he said:

“I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time.”

Put another way, they were just as good as TSA but not better. How is that a justification for ending a program?

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) has been quoted as saying private screeners offer a “statistically significantly better” performance. Maybe and maybe not, but that’s not the point.

One major advantage to the program was that if a private screener got over zealous in their searches, they could be quickly and easily fired. The same cannot be said for government employees; there are layers of bureaucracy that make it extremely difficult for the flying public to see action from their complaints.

If Pistole doesn’t see an advantage, I do, if but only in principle. If I don’t like the service I’m being offered by TSA, I’ll head elsewhere – to an airport with private security screeners who have an exemplary record of customer satisfaction (they must, or they’ll get canned).

But TSA has denied me that option and with no explanation. If the private screeners were less effective than government screeners, that’s one thing, but that’s not what Pistole said.

Now, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (a union seeking to represent TSA), said, “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.”

Hold on a minute. I thought these private screeners had to meet TSA standards and worked under TSA oversight. If so, then cost has nothing to do with it, correct? Shame on you for using the memory of 9/11 as a scare tactic against private security. The private sector is not inherently unable to achieve security, despite some political persuasions to the contrary. And why is a union chiming in on this in the first place?

Decisions like these had better be made on the basis of safety and security, but something stinks of non-security related influence.

What’s the matter, TSA, afraid of some competition?

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Barreod

    TSA isn’t afraid of the competition. Private screening costs 17% more (source CBO). Some private screening companies cheat their workers. Covenant Aviation is being sued in a class action lawsuit because they allegedly Violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. I read the case and it appears to be pretty cut and dry. They sure are pulling out the big guns to defend the case.
    The contractors self-certify that they pay their employees in accordance with ATSA and other applicable laws. It’s just a matter of time until a class action questions their adherence to ATSA wage requirements.
    TSA now has a 3% voluntary attrician rate. Covenent’s attrician rate is much much higher, at least in part because it pays far less than TSA. So why doesn’t the government pay less? Because it costs 17,500 per person for training and background checks. Even when the screening is done by private screeners, the TSA pays for most of these costs.
    Private screeners are a crappy deal for all but the owners of the private company.
    I am not a screener and no one in my family is a screener. I just think the truth is important.