TSA revises estimates on using private airport security screeners

A Transportation Security Administration employee tests equipment at a facility in Arlington last month.
A Transportation Security Administration employee tests equipment at a facility in Arlington last month. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 9:58 PM

A long-simmering dispute on the use of private security screeners at U.S. airports boiled over again this week as the top House Republican on transportation issues accused the Transportation Security Administration of inflating the cost of using such screeners in an effort to keep federal screeners on the job.

Under a program overseen by the TSA, 16 airports - including ones in Kansas City, Rochester, N.Y., and San Francisco - use private screeners to inspect airline passengers, baggage and cargo; all other airports rely on federal transportation security officers.

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole suspended the program in January, saying he did not see the advantage of expanding it at this point.

An agency study published in 2007 estimated that using private screeners would cost 17 percent more than federal screeners. But according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week, the agency revised its estimates in January and now says that private screeners would cost just 3 percent more.

The updated estimate accounted for the potential cost of overlapping administrative personnel at airports using private screeners and costs associated with passenger and baggage screening at those airports, including workers' compensation, insurance and retirement expenses, the GAO said.

The agency is working to further revise the estimates, according to the report.

"It's obvious they tried to cook the books to make it look like the private screening under federal supervision was more expensive," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday during an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.

Mica, who helped author legislation establishing the TSA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said the agency "was never intended to grow" to employ more than 40,000 federal screeners and thousands of administrative personnel. He strongly opposed Pistole's decision to halt the private security program, noting that GAO studies have concluded that private screeners perform better than federal agents.

"I'll spend any amount of money to make sure the country is safe or passengers are safe or the airline industry is safe. But what I want is the best performance," Mica said.

Nicholas Kimball, a TSA spokesman, said the private screening program will continue at the 16 airports and will not expand "unless there are clear and substantial advantages to do so."

"This decision aligns with [Pistole's] vision of the agency as a federal counterterrorism network that continues to evolve to keep the traveling public safe," Kimball said in an e-mail.

The agency has worked to revise its 2007 estimates since the GAO raised concerns in 2009, but Kimball maintained that "private screening contracts on average cost the government more than a federalized workforce."

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