GAO: TSA analysis of private airport screeners missed costs

A study completed early last year by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) showing that the cost of using private screeners at six airports around the country was more than 17 percent higher than at airports operating with federal screeners excluded some costs associated with the federal employees, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Those costs include workers compensation, general liability insurance, and some retirement costs paid by the federal government, says the report, Aviation Security: TSA's Cost and Performance Study of Private Sector Airport Screening (GAO-09-27R). The TSA report, which was released in February 2008, also doesn't account for lost corporate income tax revenue from private screening operators, GAO says.

Under a federal mandate, TSA in 2002 began pilot tests of private screeners at several airports and in 2004 created the Screening Partnership Program (SPP) to allow commercial airports to apply to the agency to acquire private screeners instead of relying on the federal screeners. So far, just six airports and one heliport are using the private screeners. Late this spring, TSA is expected to select private screeners for seven airports in Montana.

According to GAO, TSA excluded some cost elements in its study because "they wanted to determine the impact of the SPP on TSA's budget, rather than to determine the impact to the federal government as a whole."

GAO notes that in the TSA study the agency acknowledged that any cost savings under SPP would be limited because of the mandated structure of the program. The SPP business model is limited under law and TSA policy with regard to "staffing, compensation, and operations at SPP airports," GAO says. "Therefore, the outputs of such a constrained model produce similar performance results with an anticipated costs premium due to an additional layer of contract management."

The TSA report did say that screener performance at the SPP airports was equal to or better than that of Transportation Security Officers, GAO says.

GAO says that TSA has already taken steps to identify needless redundancies in its staff assigned to SPP and non-SPP airports, although these efforts have not been completed.