Despite Option, Airports in No Rush to Hire Private Screeners

Only two airports have applied to federal government to switch to private screeners


WASHINGTON -- Despite all the grumbling about those federal security screeners, airports are not rushing to replace them with private workers.

Only two airports - in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Elko, Nev. - have applied to the government to switch back to privately employed screeners. And the management at Elko is having second thoughts.

"Are the costs going to outweigh the benefits?" asked Cris Jensen, director of the Elko Regional Airport. "We're not sure."

Advocates of private screeners had predicted that dozens of airports would jump at the chance to make the switch, saying the bureaucracy inherent in a government agency - the Transportation Security Administration - slowed staffing decisions at the country's 450 commercial airports. Security lines snaked through some terminals while screeners elsewhere at an airport sat idle.

Elaine Sanchez, spokeswoman for Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, explained why most airports are sticking with the federal screeners: "In a word, liability," she said.

Sanchez and other airport officials said they are concerned about potential lawsuits: People might sue an airport where private screeners failed to prevent terrorists from launching an attack.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government created a fund that paid victims and their families if they agreed not to sue airlines, airports, security companies and others. The participation rate was 97 percent; only about 80 suits rose from the terrorist strikes.

A law passed in 2002 gave limited legal protection to some companies involved in anti-terrorism businesses such as airport screening. Companies that receive a special designation from the Homeland Security Department can be sued, but their customers cannot.

Steve van Beek, executive vice president for the Airports Council International, said many of the airports that his organization represents are still not sure they would have enough protection, despite the law.

In February, FirstLine Transportation Security - an Eastlake, Ohio, company that employs private security screeners as part of a trial program at Kansas City (Mo.) International Airport - was the first screening company to get that designation. Recently, Illinois-based Covenant Aviation Security, which employs screeners San Francisco International Airport and at the Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi, became the second.

With the TSA under fire in Congress for its spending practices, FirstLine's president, John DeMell, said he believes more airports are sticking with the federal system because they worry that lawmakers might cut money for private screeners. Washington pays the cost of airport screening.

Congress created the agency after the Sept. 11 attacks and ordered it to replace the privately employed screeners hired by airlines with a better-paid, better-trained federal work force. More than 50,000 screeners were hired in less than a year, though that number has been trimmed to about 45,000.

Congress also ordered five commercial airports to use privately employed screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards to serve as a comparison to the federal employees. Those airports are in San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Congressional investigators, in a recent report, found problems in both passenger and luggage screening at many airports, regardless of whether the government or private companies handled security.

Mike Marnach, director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, said the airport's board of directors voted to switch to private screeners because they think passengers will benefit. "They'll be more responsible to the customer," he said.

Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said Dulles International and Reagan National airports might be interested if it was shown private screeners improved security and customer service.

"But we haven't determined that that's the case," she said.

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