Government to Cut Screeners at Some Airports, Add at Others

JFK, Newark, Atlanta airports all slated for drops in number of screeners


WASHINGTON -- Some airports will lose some of their security screeners and others will get more as the government shifts its screening work force to reflect changes in commercial air traffic patterns.

John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport are among the airports where the number of screeners will drop. Dulles International Airport in Washington and Los Angeles International Airport will gain, according to the plan, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

"There are some airports that we believe are overstaffed and some we believe are understaffed," Tom Blank, acting deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, told the subcommittee that covers infrastructure protection on Thursday.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the full committee, said TSA has an obligation to protect all travelers.

"It is indefensible that TSA plans to reduce the number of screeners at airports known to have long wait times, especially those airports that are larger and need additional security measures," Thompson said.

Mark Brewer, who heads T.F. Green in Providence, R.I., said his airport is serving record numbers of passengers, but will lose 32 full-time employees, or 13 percent of its screening work force.

"We're very, very concerned about the reduction in staffing," Brewer said.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said she was glad Dulles is slated to get 79 more screeners.

"That's good, because two weeks ago we waited an hour and a half," she said.

Some believe the way to make sure that airports have enough screeners to keep security lines moving is to shift to privately employed workers.

For the past nine months, airports have been able to apply to the government to opt out of the federal screening system, but only Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota and Elko Regional Airport in Nevada have done so.

TSA, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was ordered by Congress to replace private screeners hired by airlines with a better-paid and better-trained federal work force. Mike Marnach, director of the Sioux Falls airport, said it is time to try something other than the government model.

"We like it, it's OK, but I'm not sure it's the most efficient for the taxpayer," Marnach said. The airport plans the switch in the fall.

Five airports that already use private screeners under a pilot program will continue to do so, the TSA said Wednesday in announcing it has approved the switch for Sioux Falls.

Marnach said the private screeners working on Sept. 11, 2001, did what they were supposed to.

"Box cutters and 3˝-inch knives weren't prohibited and the terrorists knew that," he said. "My board thinks private companies didn't get a fair shake."

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a member of the House subcommittee, opposes private screeners.

"I won't be flying out of Sioux Falls," said DeFazio, D-Ore. "Before 9/11, screeners had trouble in tests detecting fully assembled large-caliber handguns and today that's not a problem."

Like all airports, Sioux Falls will not be able to choose which company provides the screening service. The TSA will make that selection from a list of 34 approved companies.

The TSA hired more than 50,000 screeners in less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, 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, Miss.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Airport officials say they are concerned that they would be sued if private screeners failed to prevent a terrorist attack. A law passed in 2002 gave limited legal protection to some companies involved in anti-terrorism businesses. Many airports are not sure that is enough.

Marnach said his board of directors does not think that will happen.

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