When the FAA was re-authorized in 2012, legislation demanded that the TSA quit bottlenecking the process for airports to opt for private screeners, the way that some like San Francisco International have already done. But according to the June Airport Policy News, the TSA is playing new games with the certification process to avoid any airports opting out of TSA screeners.
Not a single new contract has been approved, and procurements that were underway have been halted with the intention of ‘starting the process over later.’ Orlando Sanford airport has an approved application allowing it to bring on private screeners, it just hasn’t been allowed to contract for them.
The TSA has added a new “cost efficiency target” for which if contracts don’t hit, they won’t be awarded. Basically the TSA says they won’t let airports have private screeners unless those private screeners are cheaper than TSA screeners. Which makes sense, except:
- The TSA plays funny games with its own costs. As Airport Policy News reports,
In its 2008 study (GAO-09-27R), the agency faulted TSA’s cost comparisons for omitting the cost of overlapping TSA administrative staff at SPP airports, and failing to include TSA costs for workers’ comp, general liability insurance, and some retirement costs. Not mentioned in this report, but relevant to accurate cost comparisons, TSA also does not include the cost of using its screener flying squad (the National Deployment Force) to fill in at TSA-screened airports.
- The TSA requires private screeners to be paid just as much as government screeners, and don’t take private screeners’ greater efficiency into account in their comparisons. The Government Accountability Office found that despite having to pay private screeners government-level wages,
the cost per screener at SFO was 5.3% less than TSA’s cost at LAX. While that may not sound like much, when combined with much higher productivity at SFO (16,113 passengers per screener at SFO vs. 9,765 at LAX, due mostly to a good mix of part-time and full-time screeners at SFO), the overall result would be 42.6% lower screening cost at LAX if the SFO contract model were applied there
Private screeners not only have to be paid the same amount as government screeners, private screening companies have to follow TSA standards and procedures at the checkpoint. So they’re not a huge leap forward for travelers, the way that precheck is (give up information to the government in order for them sometimes restoring your right to travel the way you used to be able to).
But in areas of cost – just as in screening procedure – it’s important to hold TSA’s feet to the fire so that the imperious agency doesn’t flout the law.
To be clear, perhaps my characterization of TSA flouting the intention of Congress as illegal may be strong. The Supreme Court gives tremendous latitude (‘Chevron deference’) to agencies. They’ve even just given agencies latitude to determine the scope of their powers when statutes are ambiguous (City of Arlington v. FCC). So I’m not suggesting that the TSA would necessarily be slapped down by a final arbiter of the law.
Rather they are acting as an impediment to the private screening program, even though 2012 legislation was specifically meant to overcome their intransigence.