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TSA Preparing for Private Screeners That Won’t Save U.S. Money

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said his agency would prepare for a substantial number of U.S. airports converting to private screeners, even if he doesn’t think the move will save money.

Legislation President Barack Obama probably will sign puts the onus on the agency to show that switching to private screeners from government employees at an airport would be detrimental to security and not cost effective.

Screening costs at the 16 U.S. airports that hire private companies are 3 percent to 9 percent higher than those using TSA employees, Pistole said yesterday.

“I didn’t see any clear and substantial advantage to expanding the program,” Pistole, at a House Homeland Security panel hearing, said of the evaluation of applications from airports seeking to switch. “Congress has passed this law, and the president is intending to sign it, I believe, so I’ll work with the committee to figure out the best way to move forward.”

Pistole answered criticism from Representative John Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, who proposed the requirement to allow more private screeners. Mica, a Florida Republican, questioned Pistole at the hearing, even though he’s not a member of the Homeland Security panel.

The TSA has spent too much money on recruiting and has had too much turnover among personnel, Mica said.

“No one is saying do away with the federal government,” Mica said. “We want to get you into the security business and out of the personnel business.”

Private Screeners

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airlines were responsible for aviation security and hired companies to operate airport checkpoints. The law that created TSA put it in charge of security and required five airports to have private screeners as part of a two-year pilot program.

The number later expanded to 16. Pistole halted new participation in January 2011, saying he wouldn’t approve any application unless the benefits to U.S. taxpayers were clear and substantial.

The four-year Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill, which cleared the Senate Feb. 6, forces the TSA to justify any denial, submit a report on the decision to Congress and provide a road map for the airport on how to win approval. The House approved the measure Feb. 3.

Pistole, questioned by Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, said the agency will have to turn over screening at a “substantial number” of airports under the pending law.

“Rather than trying to insulate a giant federal workforce, TSA should be working to strengthen and improve the private-screening program,” said Rogers, chairman of the Transportation Security Subcommittee.

Democrats on the panel questioned why Republicans wanted to move toward private screeners if the government wouldn’t save money and passengers would have to go through the same steps at the airport they do now.

“The 9-11 day of horror was partly on the watch of privatized screeners,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. “I see nothing that’s changed today.”

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