In a move that some are calling another TSA power grab while others are calling a logical and sound judgment call, Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole has rejected Springfield-Branson Airport’s application to opt-out of TSA-administered airport screening. More importantly, he has made clear that the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program will not be expanded further.
As a concession to Republican lawmakers skeptical of creating another behemoth government agency, the public law creating the TSA allows for airports to opt-out of government screening in favor of private companies (who still must work closely with TSA officials and follow all TSA guidelines). These private workers also cannot be paid less than TSA employees, therefore eliminating a "race to the bottom" that might lead to even worse security conditions than travelers in American airports must already contend with.
But although 16 airports have already opted out, including San Francisco International Airport, a close-reading of the law reveals that the TSA Administrator is actually left with a great deal of leeway in choosing whether to allow private screening at an airport. A private screening company may take over only if the TSA Administrator certifies to Congress that:
(1) the level of screening services and protection provided at the airport under the contract will be equal to or greater than the level that would be provided at the airport by Federal Government personnel under this chapter; and
(2) the private screening company is owned and controlled by a citizen of the United States, to the extent that the Under Secretary determines that there are private screening companies owned and controlled by such citizens.
That essentially leaves Mr. Pistole with a blank check to do what he pleases, a problem that appears in other parts of the bill as well (and in so many laws that Congress enacts).
I will be the first to admit that there are some explicit and non-explicit advantages to keeping all airport screeners government employees at U.S. airports. It is not like the airports that opt-out of TSA-administered security screening can set their own rules. That is true only to an extent: all airports must meet minimum guidelines set by the TSA. In other words, an opt-out airport is free to institute a higher-level of screening, but could not, for example, reject full body scanners or the TSA’s invasive pat-down approach. And do you ever notice that the metal detectors tend to be turned up higher at SFO than at other airports? I attribute that to the TSA scrutinizing SFO and other opt-out airports almost to the point of defeating the purpose of the Screening Partnership Program.
Yet there are upsides to the program. Unlike the now-unionized TSA workforce, private screeners can be fired more easily for poor performance and are therefore more likely to treat the traveling public better. Plus, I continue to have strong reservations over the federal government installing agents to monitor and restrict the movement of U.S. citizens internally in the United States.
I was extremely disappointed by Administrator Pistole’s rationale for rejecting the latest Screening Partnership Program application:
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.
This has raised the ire of many in Congress including John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He has promised hearings on the matters. The problem, of course, is that Pistole’s stated reason for denying the opt-out application does not comport with the law I quoted above. While Pistole has enormous leeway to reject privatization applications, the law implies that if the private company can provide equal or better security to that of the TSA, they get the green light. It is a stretch to argue that the law grants the TSA Administrator the right to deny applications because he doesn’t see a "clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time." Pistole has not stated that the company wanting to take over screening in Missouri would not provide identical or better security than the TSA has.
Of course, some people are applauding the news. John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees stated:
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. We applaud Administrator Pistole for recognizing the value in a cohesive federalized screening system and work force.
Mr. Gage apparently doesn’t know that private screeners cannot be paid less and must use the same equipment and procedures the "real" TSA uses. And cohesive? I don’t think so. That’s another reason why I don’t mind the Private Partnership Program. Already, we don’t see consistency across U.S. airports. Some TSA stations check ID before entering security and again while passing through the metal detector. Others just check it once. Some airports have full body scanners, others do not. Some airports have much better TSA employees than others (Dulles and Boston Logan being my two least favorite). A TSA experience in America can vary dramatically by what airport you are traveling through.
At this point, Congress should update the law to explicitly allow airports to opt-out of TSA administered security. We’ll now get to enjoy a lot of outrage, concern, and acting as the House examines why Mr. Pistole had decided to suspend the Security Partnership Program. I’m anxious to watch him squirm.
By the way, here is a list of the 16 airports that opt-out of TSA security screening:
- 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;
- Seven airports in Montana:
- Frank Wiley Field
- Sidney Richland Regional
- Dawson Community
- L.M. Clayton
- Wokal Field
- Havre City County
- Lewiston Municipal