WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers, many of them upset with the performance of the Transportation Security Administration, hope to encourage airports to return to privately employed screeners.
A provision in the Homeland Security spending bill, which was passed by the House Thursday evening, shields airports from lawsuits if they switch to private screeners.
Some airport officials haven't made the switch for fear that they could be sued if terrorists carried out an attack because of something private screeners did or didn't do.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., added the legal protection to the Homeland Security spending bill to give airports the option of using private screeners.
"Private screening - under the watchful eye of the TSA - would have a lot more flexibility and maneuverability in addressing peak-hour loads and moving screeners around on the clock, rather than a large bureaucracy like the TSA," Rogers said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a member of the House aviation subcommittee, thinks private screeners will weaken airport security. Companies that hire screeners already have some legal protection, he said.
"If the private screening's so great, why do the private screening companies need the federal government to cap their liability?" DeFazio asked. "Why do the airports want to be exempt from any liability?"
The switch to TSA screeners came after the Sept. 11 attacks exposed problems with privately employed workers. Private screeners have been used by five airports as part of a test comparing them with federal screeners at the other 450 commercial airports. They are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said that air passengers would be safer with private screeners. "It would be much more efficient," he said.
A congressional investigation found the private screeners performed statistically better than the federal screeners, though opponents of private screening say the difference was slight.
In November, all airports were allowed to apply to switch from government screeners to private screeners.
Advocates of private screeners predicted that dozens of airports would rush to make the switch because of frustration with TSA's staffing decisions and procedures.
But only Elko Regional Airport in Nevada and Sioux Falls Regional Airport have applied to opt out.
One of the five test airports, San Francisco International Airport, had said it would switch to government screeners because it didn't have sufficient legal protection. Airport spokesman Michael McCarron said it would keep private screeners if the congressional plan becomes law.
Steve van Beek, executive vice president of policy for the trade group Airports Council International, estimates there still are 20 or 30 airports interested in making the switch.
However, he said legal protection is only part of the issue. The other is whether TSA will allow airports to hire the screening company themselves. Now, the airports have to ask TSA to choose the company that provides the screening service for them.
"If those are the two big issues, then one has been nailed down," van Beek said.
George Doughty, executive director of Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa., says he doesn't see much benefit in having TSA hire a screening company.
Airports now have half the responsibility for security and the TSA has the other half, he said. "If I'm just going to bring in yet another third party in the process, it doesn't seem to get me anything," he said.
"Right now we've got a system in place. It's working," Doughty said. "We could improve on it if we could manage the screening."
TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said the agency is pleased the issue appears close to resolution.
"We know there are a number of airports that have been awaiting resolution of this issue," Harmon said.
The other four airports that use private screeners are in Rochester, N.Y., Tupelo, Miss., Jackson, Wyo., and Kansas City, Mo.