After months of exploration, Sacramento International Airport has decided to replace federally-employed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport screeners with private contractors. This is an opt-out I support.
As a compromise to House Republicans over a decade ago, language in the act creating the TSA allowed for airports to choose to hire private contractors to conduct airport screening rather than the TSA directly. These private contractors were held to the same screening standards as the TSA (in fact they were closely monitored by the TSA) and forced to follow the same protocols.
In what has become known as the Screening Partnership Program, a number of airports have opted-out of TSA screening, including:
- San Francisco International Airport
- Kansas City International Airport
- Greater Rochester International Airport
- Sioux Falls Regional Airport
- Jackson Hole Airport
- Tupelo Regional Airport
- Key West International Airport
- Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport
- Roswell Industrial Air Center;
- Seven airports in Montana:
- Frank Wiley Field
- Sidney Richland Regional
- Dawson Community
- L.M. Clayton
- Wokal Field
- Havre City County
- Lewiston Municipal
Expansion of the Screening Partnership Program stalled until earlier this year, when Congress rebuffed TSA Administrator John Pistole, explicitly shifting the burden of proof from airports (who had to demonstrate why a shift from government-employed to private screeners would be advantageous) to the TSA (who now must demonstrate that a shift from government to private screeners would be harmful in order to deny an application). Major airports like Orlando and now Sacramento have subsequently applied to get rid of the TSA.
Tony Bizjak of the Sacramento Bee covered the story today and asked me for my thoughts. I provided many, but this is what made it to print:
Matthew Klint, an aviation blogger with upgrd.com who focuses on TSA issues, said that, in his experience, private screeners at San Francisco are friendlier than TSA screeners.
But he said San Francisco checkpoint lines seem longer than at the other two airports he frequents, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He said he suspects San Francisco officials ratchet up security. His belt buckle sets off the alarm at San Francisco, but not at other airports.
"It's almost like they try a little harder," Klint said.
And isn't that the truth? From asking what my name is to turning up that metal detector a little higher, SFO does scrutinize passengers more closely. But the difference is in attitude--knowing they can be easily fired, the screeners at SFO are almost always on good behavior and usually friendly.
SMF passengers will see friendlier service and the airport itself will have more control over personnel, but it will be the same ol' security theatre passengers have become used too--policies that give the illusion of safety to the uninformed, but just slow down travelers who pose no safety risk while treating everyone as guilty until proven innocent.
The decision to privatize reflects more of a disgust with the TSA's current screening protocols and lack of accountability more than anything else, even though changing to private screeners will do nothing, per se, to solve this problem.
It remains my hope that the TSA will come to understand that the current approach to airport screening is a boondoggle to taxpayers that is fooling fewer people each day and not actually keeping us safer. At least a transition to private screening may bring in some fresh perspective, with a goal to mitigate as much as possible the uncomfortable process of airport screening that will continue for the foreseeable future.