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As frustration grows, airports consider ditching TSA

As holiday travel ramps up, so does controversy over body scanners and pat-downs at the nation's airports.

With a reduced role, the TSA could become more of a regulatory agency, leaving much of the daily work on the ground to for-profit companies. But federal officials say the expertise and training offered at the 457 TSA-regulated airports are unparalleled.

"U.S. aviation security technology and procedures are driven by the latest intelligence and give us the best chance to detect and disrupt any potential threat, given the tools currently available," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said.

It's unclear whether private screeners cost the TSA more. One independent report found that private security contracts were 9 to 17 percent higher than the TSA's costs. Mica says the difference is "concocted."

The TSA also offers performance-based incentives. Employees who reach the highest performance rating can get a pay raise and a $2,500 bonus.

Many security and airline industry officials say the switch to a network of privately run screeners could hinder much of the government's progress since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Robert W. Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive based in New York, said airports who are considering a switch to private screeners are simply responding to "consumer outrage." Mann says a a better solution is tougher regulations and training for federal security officers.

"We can't go back to the late '90s when private screeners had McDonald's-level wages and attention spans to match," Mann said. "A uniform, tough government system makes a lot of sense."

The American Federation of Government Employees, the labor union for TSA employees, has questioned the privatization of airport security as well, calling it an ineffective "patchwork quilt."

Passenger-rights groups' opinions are mixed. Weary of big business but locked in a long-running fight over federal security methods, many travelers say they would like to see far-reaching government reforms and a limited amount of privatization.

"The private security is pretty good and rigid," said Kate Hanni, who runs Flyers Rights out of Napa, Calif., which counts more than 30,000 members. "But as long as the scanners and pat-downs are in place, the experience is going to be the same."

Hanni said trade groups, nonprofit organizations, airports and federal officials are working to "get on the good side of Mica" as he becomes chairman of the House transportation committee.

But what the debate over private-vs.-government security most clearly shows is TSA's customer-service issues, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has followed the TSA since it was created in 2001. In its early days, the TSA consulted Marriott International, the Walt Disney Co. and Intel on ways to speed people through checkpoints and make fliers happy.

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