A TSA official scans travelers at John F. Kennedy Airport. More airports could use private security screeners under an FAA bill. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
More airports could opt to use private security screeners instead of Transportation Security Administration employees under a Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill awaiting President Obama's signature.
The bill, which authorizes FAA programs through 2015, would allow airports with TSA's approval to contract their passenger screening and security services if contractors can do the job as good or better than federal screeners without affecting costs.
The House approved the bill Friday, and the Senate approved the bill Monday.
Currently, 16 airports including San Francisco International and Kansas City International use contractors to screen passengers. The bill would allow any of the nation's 450 airports that use federal screeners to switch to contractors.
Four Montana airports and the Springfield Branson National Airport in Missouri applied for the program but were all denied last January.
Last year, TSA Administrator John Pistole stopped approving requests from airports to replace federal screeners with private screeners. Pistole told lawmakers at a House panel hearing Tuesday that he did not see any "clear and substantial advantage" to expanding the program when he became TSA administrator in 2010.
"Though I remained committed to maintaining contractor screening where it then existed," Pistole said, "now, as then, I am open to approving new applications where a clear and substantial benefit could be realized."
But "clear and substantial" was a standard added by the administrator, said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., at the House subcommittee on transportation security hearing.
Private screeners have to meet the same qualifications as TSA's transportation security officers (TSOs) and must be paid the same or more than TSOs. TSA decides which company can provide passenger screening services and then oversees the contractors.
Pistole pointed to a 2011 TSA study that showed the cost of contracted screening is between 3 percent and 9 percent higher that the cost of using federal screeners.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and some subcommittee members blamed poorly trained private screeners for the events that led to Sept. 11.
"Private contractors must by their very nature keep their eyes on the bottom line," Gage said in written testimony to the committee. "That consideration cannot help but bleed over into decisions on staffing, training, recruitment, retention and operations."
Mark VanLoh, director of aviation for Kansas City, disagreed, saying the private screeners at the Kansas City airport work particularly well when checkpoint changes are made and screeners have to be added on short notice because he doesn't have to wait for approval to modify schedules or add workers from TSA's offices in Washington.
"I have talked with several other airport directors and this is a constant concern of theirs especially when TSA has been reducing staff nationwide for the past few years at some airports but increasing their administrative staff in D.C.," VanLoh said in an email.
"TSA is under an employment cap for screeners and this is evident when traveling to those airports with multiple lanes and only one lane open."
Under the FAA reauthorization bill, TSA will have to explain why it denies any applications from airports to switch to contracted screeners, including the results of any cost or security analyses and recommendations on how the airport can address the reasons for denial, according to the bill.