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As frustration grows, airports consider ditching TSA
"TSA forgot about customer service," Light said. "The early executives were worried about smiley faces, wait times. They've lost sight of that."
Covenant, based in Mica's home district in northeastern coastal Florida, has airport screening contracts in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tupelo, Miss., and seven small airports in northern and eastern Montana. Its deal at San Francisco International is by far its largest. Covenant employs nearly 1,100 people in the bay area, who make up nearly all of its 1,150 workers. The last four-year contract, from 2006 to 2010, totaled $314 million. A new contract has been put out for competitive bids. Meanwhile, Covenant is operating on a two-month contract ending in February.
San Francisco airport officials say that they are happy with the Covenant contract and that "by allowing Covenant to worry about staffing, TSA can focus on the security," airport spokesman Michael C. McCarron said.
Berry, Covenant's president and a former Marine colonel who served two tours flying helicopters in Vietnam, has become the face of the private security movement, extolling the virtues of private business in fostering better and safer environments on television news programs and before congressional panels.
"We're smaller, we can react much quicker to things and I think a lot of airports want to be more customer service-oriented," he said. "There's a reason not one of the 16 airports that have opted out have gone back to TSA."
Few government or third-party reports have been produced in the past eight years that compare the performance of private companies with that of the government in airport security. The lone outside study, commissioned by the TSA and written by an Arlington County information technology firm, compared a dozen airports and looked at data from 2004 through 2007. It found that private screeners perform at a level "equal to or better" than their government counterparts.
The full study's findings have never been released.
Orlando's two commercial airports, Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International, were bringing in Covenant and FirstLine last month for presentations on taking over airport security. Orlando Sanford approved the change to privatization in October, before the uproar over the TSA's screening methods even began.
Orlando Sanford President Larry Dale said private screening would be "more enjoyable" for the traveling public and potentially spur business.
"This country was built on competition, on private investment," Dale said, "and I've gotten a lot of complaints from passengers about the new screening. We're a business after all, and we have to look out for our customers."
Other airports, including Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport and Indianapolis International Airport, have said publicly they are studying whether a change would improve their bottom line.
The Kansas City airport, which was one of the first tochoose a private security operator, said the biggest difference in using private screeners is the ability to get security issues resolved quickly.
"Unlike a government job, these contract employees can be removed immediately with poor performance, attitude or unsuitability," said Kansas City airport director Mark VanLoh. "It shows in our passenger surveys for customer satisfaction each year."