Jacksonville, Fla., Airport Authority Changes Direction on Screeners

The Jacksonville Airport Authority will not ask the Transportation Security Administration to replace federal passenger screeners at Jacksonville International Airport with those hired by private companies, authority Executive Director John Clark said Monday.

Beginning Nov. 19, airports can ask the TSA to make the switch provided that they demonstrate that security won't slip, according to a provision written into the legislation that created the federalized screener system. As many as 100 of the nation's 429 commercial airports may take that option, according to some estimates. Backers of the measure believe that private industry's more flexible ways will help reduce screening wait times lasting 40 minutes or more at some airports.

At JIA, screening wait times average two minutes, the third-lowest in the country, said Paul Hackenberry, who heads the TSA's Jacksonville office. That performance is hard to beat, Clark said.

"Security is well in hand with the TSA," Clark said at Monday's Airport Authority board meeting. "No sense in going in there and tampering with that."

In March, Clark held a different view, telling a gathering of members of Congress, TSA officials and airport administrations that he wanted to opt out of the federal system. On Monday, he said his opinion had changed based on the results of a cost-benefit analysis showing how the switch would impact the authority. For instance, the authority would have to purchase liability insurance. And Clark had planned to set up a subsidiary to manage the screeners. Florida law doesn't allow government authorities to do that.

"It's like anything else -- you have an idea, you pursue it, you do the due diligence," he said. "Some things work out and some don't. This is one that we decided for the time and energy and capital that we would put into it, we're better served leaving it like it is."

Clark said the authority will work with the TSA to do whatever it can to help the screening process.

"It shows that the partnership between the TSA and the Airport Authority is working very well," Hackenberry said of Clark's decision. He said Clark's decision will boost morale among TSA's Jacksonville screening force, which ranges in size from 160 to 200.

For those airports that are allowed by the TSA to opt out, the TSA will hire a private contractor to recruit, hire and train the screeners and to provide direct oversight. However, the privately hired screeners will be held to the same standards as federalized screeners, and the TSA would oversee the screening.

A TSA report released earlier this year found that "there is no evidence that any of the five privately screened airports performed below the average level of federalized airports." As a test, five airports across the country were permitted to use privately hired screeners beginning in November 2002.

Security at U.S. airports has been tightened greatly at U.S. airports since Sept. 11. Before then, private contractors hired by the airlines handled security operations, with oversight by the Federal Aviaton Administration.

Estimates on how many airports may choose to opt out vary. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House of Representatives Aviation Subcommittee, expects that 100 airports may choose to opt out. But Stephen Van Beek, executive vice president at Airports Council International, a trade group in Washington, D.C., said that 20 to 30 of the organization's 150 U.S. members have shown interest in replacing the federal screeners. Many airports will wait to see more specifics from the TSA before making a choice.

"Most airports at this point are still on the fence because there are some issues regarding legal liability, the funding of opt out and the degree of flexibility," Van Beek said. "It's sort of unclear at this point how many are going to apply."

But, Van Beek said, there is one clear benefit by giving airports a choice.

"In everything, we think a little competition is a good thing."