At San Francisco Worldwide Airport, personal contractors deal with safety screening. Is it the airport of the longer term?

During the partial government shutdown, screeners at two Silicon Valley airports, San Francisco and San Jose International, ushered thousands of people through security checkpoints.

Operations at airports 35 miles apart looked similar — uniformed officers reminding people to take off their shoes and put their laptops in plastic bins — but there was one big difference: Only the officers at the San Francisco airport were paid.

That's because San Francisco International is one of nearly two dozen airports across the country that hires private contractors to conduct its security inspections instead of the Transportation Security Administration.

As the closure stretched from days to weeks, more and more TSA employees stopped showing up. At some point, 10 percent of TSA officers did not report for duty.

The result: isolated staff shortages across the country and anxiety for travelers. Airports in Baltimore, Houston and Miami had to temporarily close checkpoints. TSA officials acknowledged that many officers did not come to work because of the financial hardship that comes with working without pay.

TSA: Financial stress of closure forces officers to stay home

“Operations were normal,” said Doug Yakel, an airport spokesman.

There has long been a debate about whether airport screening should be carried out by the federal government or by private companies. And the latest government shutdown — and the possibility of a repeat if lawmakers can't reach a deal with President Trump by Friday — has some wondering whether concerns about staffing could prompt more airports to consider switching to private contractors.

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, airport security was handled by private contractors and paid for by airlines. But after 9/11, those duties were assigned to the newly created TSA, which is responsible for security screening at the vast majority of the nation's 440-plus airports.

But as part of that agreement, Congress also created a voluntary pilot program allowing five airports to use private contractors for security inspections. The program, launched in 2002, was eventually open to all airports. Today, 22 airports participate – including the original five: San Francisco, Kansas City International in Missouri, Greater Rochester International in New York, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Tupelo Regional in Mississippi.

Proponents of the system say the TSA hasn't made it easy for airports to make the switch. The agency has the final say on whether an airport can choose to use private auditors, and while requests are rarely denied, the process can be time-consuming. Others blame inertia and say some airports are reluctant to tinker with an agreement that works.

“I don’t know why, but it’s just ingrained in our consciousness that this is the only way,” said David Inserra, a homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has long advocated for the shift to using private companies for Screening.

Considerations when an airport applies for the program include the following: The cost of private screeners cannot be greater than the cost that would be incurred if the TSA remained at the airport. If approved, the TSA – not the airport – selects, pays and manages the contractor.

Private contractors must follow the same rules and procedures as their TSA counterparts, but have some latitude in determining checkpoint staffing. The workers wear different uniforms, but their training, salary and benefits are roughly the same. The starting salary for a TSA officer is $37,455, but may be higher in some parts of the country depending on staffing needs and cost of living.

Although the private auditors are contractors, they were paid during the shutdown while other government contractors were not because they were considered essential personnel and not being paid would have violated their contract.

Evaluations of the two programs by outside firms hired by the TSA have found no significant differences between the two systems – either in cost or in the ability to move passengers through checkpoints, TSA officials said.

But studies by the Government Accountability Office show that private contractors' costs were in some cases 2 to 19 percent lower than the TSA's cost estimates for the same work. The GAO also said the TSA's calculations did not take into account costs such as retirement benefits.

A TSA spokeswoman said the agency adjusted its estimates based on GAO recommendations.

The shutdown is putting a strain on the country's aviation system

The external evaluations did not investigate customer complaints or analyze the absenteeism, retention or turnover of auditors working for private companies.

The Heritage Foundation's Inserra contends that private companies are better suited to the job of managing airport security. He said they are more adept at managing and retaining employees and can respond more quickly to an increase in passenger volume.

“TSA’s focus should be on policy – ​​setting standards and developing new technologies,” added Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies. “A large portion of TSA is dedicated to managing this screener workforce. It’s about doing a job that isn’t necessarily government-related.”

However, a 2004 Congressional Research Service report found that private companies that ran security services in the years before the September 11 attacks suffered from poor morale and high turnover – some of the same problems faced by today's TSA has to fight. However, Amitay claimed that new training and pay standards had improved working conditions and contractor morale.

At the TSA Academy, teaching is practice-oriented

But Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 32 unions, argued that safety review is best left to the federal government.

“TSA’s mission is to keep people safe,” he said. “The goal is to detect threats and prevent them from having a negative impact on our system. This is the ultimate mission statement. If you privatize you will introduce another target and that is profit.”

Other union officials argue that the answer lies not in privatization but in a functioning federal government that can pay its workers and its bills on time.

“I don't think throwing up your hands and turning to private security companies is the solution here,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The federal government must do its job to provide the screening services.”

Union says TSA officers can't afford to staff checkpoints without paychecks

Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general and aviation expert, added: “We must never say that our TSA employees are not important enough to be federal employees.”

She noted that the September 11 attacks occurred at a time when checkpoints were operated by private companies.

Some of the country's largest airports have toyed with the idea of ​​switching to private contractors. After the understaffed TSA struggled to keep up with record numbers of travelers in 2016, airport officials in Chicago, New York and Atlanta threatened to hire private contractors.

TSA officials blamed years of cuts for the backups, which forced the agency to reduce its 45,000 airport workforce by 12 percent. The furor died down after TSA officials promised changes and convinced Congress to increase its staff. The TSA has 51,000 screeners and about 33,000 are on duty daily.

Atlantic City International Airport recently switched to private screeners after growing frustration over TSA staffing that failed to account for flight delays.

Stephen F. Dougherty, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, said the TSA will regularly close the airport checkpoint at specific times, regardless of whether flights are delayed. As a result, hundreds of passengers missed their flights because there was no one to escort them through security.

“[Atlantic City International] “prides itself on being a much more convenient and passenger-friendly airport than the larger airports in the region, and this change went against basic operating principles,” he said.

After complaints about long wait times, the TSA is rushing to personnel checkpoints

Some Republican lawmakers have pushed legislation to make it easier for airports to switch to private screeners. A bill introduced last year by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sought, among other changes, to shorten the time it takes airports to receive TSA approval for the switch. Lee is updating his bill and plans to reintroduce it this year, his spokesman said. However, a provision passed last year to fund the Federal Aviation Administration requires the TSA to make a decision on any application within 60 days. The authority previously had 120 days to make a decision.

Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airports Council International-North America, a group that advocates for the nation's airports, said it supports programs that give airports the flexibility they need to best serve travelers.

“Our position up [SPP]is that it should remain a viable program for any airport that wants to participate.”

The shutdown is putting a strain on the country's aviation safety system

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The TSA is considering eliminating security checkpoints at 150 small airports

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