Airports Turn To Security Contractors To Combat Long Lines

But are they really just the TSA with bigger lapels?

Two years ago the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offered $15,000 to anybody – literally anybody – who could come up with an idea to speed up airport security. It awarded the prize to somebodies for something. Who knows. They wouldn’t say who won or for which idea, but since we’re here two years later with longer wait times than ever, it’s fair to say it hasn’t lived up to the groundbreaking ideals of that call to action.

Instead, the country has seized upon a dated proposal to kick out the TSA and replace it with private security to make air travel faster, cheaper, and more efficient. But U.S. law says airports have to use the TSA, and so debate has boiled down to whether airports should take advantage of the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP), in which private security contractors are brought in to replace TSA passenger-screeners in the check lanes. The whole operation, however, is still run by the TSA, resulting in a program that is not new and not better.

According to an ABC news report last year, a Department of Homeland Security investigation found that 95 percent of fake practice bombs made it through security unnoticed—and yet lines are longer than ever. Now in summer 2016, the TSA recommends arriving three hours early instead of a mere two.

The industry’s oldest and biggest trade group, Airlines for America, is encouraging travelers to tweet pictures of long check-in lines under #iHateTheWait, and masses of people happily oblige. American Airlines (different from Airlines for America) said it’s had enough – 6,800 of its passengers missed flights during a one-week span of Spring Break, according to spokesman Ross Feinstein. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which controls John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia International Airports, used the word “abysmal” to describe the TSA’s process.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International, and The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey all threatened this spring to go shopping for private security if the TSA couldn’t come up with a plan. A week later the TSA announced its “major overhaul,” which, according to a New York Times story, planned to hire two percent more staff, get more dogs, and max out everyone’s overtime. Seattle-Tacoma dropped the TSA a few days after. But how much can an airport divorce itself from the TSA? Not much, but it can put up appearances. That’s where the Screening Partnership Program comes in.

How The Screening Partnership Program Actually Works

Currently, the TSA gives an airport two options: run front-end security the standard way, with TSA uniforms out front, or let them hide in the back and run the show while private security interacts with the travelers. The latter is basically what the Screening Partnership Program entails.

Private security operates under strict direction from the TSA, and even those airports that heavily utilize private contractors still have a lot of TSA personnel in the back rooms. These independent security firms also can’t bring in their own screening technologies and must comply with all TSA operating procedures. This means they have to use pat-downs and body scanners in the same way the TSA does. Even the private security contractors hired by the airport must be chosen by the TSA.

After all of this, if there is still any doubt as to who is actually in control of security at airports enrolled in the SPP, the TSA kindly clears that up on the program’s web page, stating “The airport authority has no new role or impact on the screening operations as a result of the program.”

It’s been pointed out again and again that many airports have moved to private security, but those airports tend to be small. Of the 22 operating with private security, only San Francisco International and Seattle-Tacoma International pass along significant numbers of passengers, an annual 50 million and 40 million respectively. The SPP inducted its first airports in 2005, which means other major airports around the country have had 11 years to watch the trailblazers and compare, yet most aren’t making the switch. This begs the question as to whether the SPP is actually more effective than standard TSA rule.

The security checkpoint at Denver International Airport.

Is It Effective?

Are private screeners moving passengers through more quickly than TSA screeners? “Performance for federal and privatized screening is comparable,” says a TSA spokesperson. How are they at catching fake bombs during security testing? “Comparable.” How about cost? “Cost varies from year to year and is only a snapshot in time, but overall, the cost of TSA and private screening is comparable.” Comparable— at least in this case—still means cheaper. But even this stat seems less significant when the TSA’s spokesperson goes on to say “The FAA Authorization and Reform Act of (2012) mandates that TSA award all SPP contracts below the TSA cost of screening.”

So it’s clear a lot of choice has been written out of SPP. The dream of private industry to wipe the government away from airport security is yet a pipe dream. You can change the uniforms, but the process is thoroughly TSA the entire way through.

“It’s important to remember that, under SPP, we still have TSA leadership and inspectors overseeing the security screening,” says San Francisco International’s public information officer Doug Yakel. “It’s the front-line employees staffing the checkpoints that are contracted by the TSA to a private vendor. As an airport, we continue to work directly with the TSA, not their contract vendor.” For what affects screening performance, it’s more a matter of extra manpower than different procedure. Airports can hire more private screeners or pay the security company less, or both. The ability to do exactly what the TSA does, only faster and cheaper, seems to be the major draw.

“The most significant change was the airport hiring 90 full-time equivalent private contractors to handle customer service duties, such as line managing and helping passengers get ready for screening. Things like telling folks to take off shoes and remove laptop computers,” says Brian DeRoy, communications officer for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “On average, two to three extra lanes have opened,” he says. But he redirects questions about specifics to the agency that runs them. “TSA is in charge of the lanes, so we’ll defer to them as to how many lanes on average are open on a given day.”

Seattle-Tacoma’s 90 private screeners’ contracts run out after September. The airport doesn’t see them as a replacement for the TSA, just a Band-Aid. “We continue to emphasize the private contractors are a temporary fix, and we are looking for a long-term fix from TSA,” DeRoy says.

The question of whether private security can replace the TSA is moot as long as the TSA still runs the whole show.