WASHINGTON -- A congressional investigation found airport screeners employed by private companies do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners, according to a House member who has seen the classified report.
The Government Accountability Office found statistically significant evidence that passenger screeners, who work at five airports under a pilot program, perform better than their federal counterparts at some 450 airports, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said on Tuesday.
"You get a statistically significant improvement if you go to federal supervision with private screening companies," Mica said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress ordered every commercial airport but five to switch from privately employed screeners to a government work force.
The five exceptions -- in San Francisco; Tupelo, Miss.; Rochester, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- all have private workers supervised by Transportation Security Administration officials.
Mica wants to see that system at all U.S. airports.
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, opposes private screeners.
DeFazio, who has seen the classified GAO report, said the difference between the private and government screeners was statistically significant but still slight.
"Neither number is adequate or reassuring to me and the difference is not very large," DeFazio said.
TSA screeners' ability to find guns, weapons and other dangerous items since the Sept. 11 attacks has been an ongoing concern.
The Homeland Security Department's acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, issued a separate report on Tuesday that said the screeners' performance hadn't improved since the previous audit -- which indicated that screeners hadn't improved since before the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In both inspector general audits, undercover agents tried to smuggle fake weapons and bombs past screeners.
Though the screeners were diligent and responsible, Skinner said, "the lack of improvement since our last audit indicates that significant improvement in performance may not be possible without greater use of new technology."
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield Jr. said the TSA has deployed new baggage screening technology at three airports and plans to spend $30 million to install the new machines at 100 more.
The TSA has also installed walk-through bomb detection machines at airports in 15 cities and plans to install them at the 40 busiest airports.
Finally, the agency expects to start testing backscatter machines, which can find plastic weapons and improvised bombs, sometime later this year, Hatfield said.
Congress allowed airports to opt out of the federal system and hire federal screeners as of Nov. 19. Only one airport in Elko, Nev., has asked to use private screeners.
Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, said airports are interested in using private screeners, but there are still questions about liability if there's a terrorist attack.
Some airports would like to form subsidiaries to run the screening operations, van Beek said, but are prohibited by state law.
There's also a lack of flexibility, he said. "You basically have to ask, 'Can I do it this way, can I do it that way?"'
"Unfortunately, a program that was supposed to be creative and innovative has turned into a 'Mother May I' system," van Beek said.
On the Net:
Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov