Push on to remove TSA screeners from airports

Friday, November 19, 2010
An airline passenger is patted down by a TSA agent Wednesday at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast ~ The Associated Press)

ATLANTA -- In a climate of Internet campaigns to shun airport pat-downs and veteran pilots suing over their treatment by government screeners, some airports are considering another way to show dissatisfaction: ditching TSA agents altogether.

Federal law allows airports to opt for screeners from the private sector instead. The push is being led by a powerful Florida congressman who's a longtime critic of the Transportation Security Administration and counts among his campaign contributors some of the companies who might take the TSA's place.

Furor over airline passenger checks has grown as more airports have installed scanners that produce digital images of the body's contours, and the anger intensified further when the TSA added a more intrusive style of pat-down recently for those who opt out of the full-body scans. Some travelers are using the Internet to organize protests aimed at the busy travel days next week surrounding Thanksgiving.

For Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the way to make travelers feel more comfortable would be to kick TSA employees out of their posts at the ends of the snaking security lines. This month, he wrote letters to nation's 100 busiest airports asking that they request private security guards instead.

"I think we could use half the personnel and streamline the system," Mica said Wednesday, calling the TSA a bloated bureaucracy.

Mica is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Once the new Congress convenes in January, the lawmaker said he hopes to lead the committee.

Companies that could gain business if airports heed Mica's call have helped fill his campaign coffers. In the past 13 years, Mica has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors already at 16 U.S. airports.

Private contractors are not a cure-all for passengers aggrieved about taking off their shoes for security checks, passing through full-body scanners or getting hand-frisked. For example, contractors must follow all TSA-mandated security procedures, including hand pat-downs when necessary.

Still, the top executive at the Orlando-area's second-largest airport, Orlando Sanford International Airport, said he plans to begin the process of switching to private screeners in January as long as a few remaining concerns can be met. The airport is within Mica's district.

CEO Larry Dale said members of the board that runs Sanford were impressed after watching private screeners at airports in Rochester, N.Y., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. He said TSA agents could do better at customer service.

"Some of them are a little testy," said Dale, whose airport handles 2 million passengers a year. "And we work hard to get passengers and airlines. And to have it undone by a personality problem?"

To the south, the city's main airport, Orlando International, said it's reviewing Mica's proposal, although it has some questions about how the system would work with the 34 million passengers it handles each year. In Georgia, Macon City Councilor Erick Erickson, whose committee oversees the city's small airport, wants private screeners there.

Erickson called it a protest move in an interview.

"I am a frequent air traveler and I have experienced ... TSA agents who have let the power go to their head," Erickson said. "You can complain about those people, but very rarely does the bureaucracy work quickly enough to remove those people from their positions."

TSA officials would select and pay the contractors who run airport security. But Dale thinks a private contractor would be more responsive since the contractor would need local support to continue its business with the airport.

"Competition drives accountability, it drives efficiency, it drives a particular approach to your airport," Dale said. "That company is just going to be looking at you. They're not going to be driven out of Washington, they will be driven out of here."

TSA spokesman Greg Soule would not respond directly Mica's letter, but reiterated the nation's roughly 460 commercial airports have the option of applying to use private contractors.

Companies that provide airport security are contributors to Mica's campaigns, although some donations came before those companies won government contracts.

A Mica spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment about the political contributions.

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