Sacramento International Airport gets tentative OK to switch to private checkpoint security

Published: Saturday, Jul. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

Sacramento International is poised to become the third major U.S. airport in the post-Sept. 11 era to employ private security at checkpoints instead of federal agents.

Officials with the Transportation Security Administration announced Friday they have approved the airport's application to replace TSA agents with private contractors. Airport officials made the request in April after Congress expanded an opt-out clause in the federal law that created the TSA.

Airport Director Hardy Acree said he believes private screeners can do a more efficient job than government employees and provide the same level of security.

"We're a fan of the private-public partnerships," Acree said. "I think there is going to be a higher level of customer service."

Federal TSA representatives flew into Sacramento on Friday to brief airport officials and inform TSA employees.

TSA officials declined comment, but issued a press statement saying the agency will solicit and review proposals from private security companies. That process could take a year.

The switch is not yet official, however. In its statement, the TSA said it will give final approval if it determines a private contractor will not "compromise security or detrimentally affect the cost-efficiency or the effectiveness of the screening of passengers or property at the airport."

A TSA employee union representative criticized the potential move, saying it chips away at the national system the government put into place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We will continue to fight this because we believe privatization of airport security screening is not in the best interest of the people of Sacramento," said James Mudrock, local president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The vast majority of American airports utilize TSA agents at checkpoints. Only San Francisco, Kansas City and 14 smaller airports currently use nongovernmental employees.

The Sacramento move may signal a change of direction, however. Sacramento is the third airport in recent weeks to receive permission to participate in what is called the federal "Screening Partnership Program."

Orlando Sanford International, a smaller airport in Orlando, Fla., won an OK last month, and Glacier Park International near Kalispell, Mont., obtained approval this month.

Those approvals came quickly after a federal law change this year requiring the TSA to expedite airport requests to opt for private security.

Some observers have said the issue appears to be more of a political football than a security concern.

Republican leaders in Congress pushed to strengthen the opt-out program, saying the TSA is bloated. They want TSA to relinquish screening duties at airports, reduce its workforce and focus on regulatory work and strategic planning.

Opponents of private security, including federal employee unions, say airport screening is too important to turn over to a variety of for-profit companies. They argue that the checkpoint system is more cohesive and organized when handled by one organization.

Richard Bloom, an airport security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who recently testified to Congress on the issue, said the public-private question may be a tossup, both in terms of cost effectiveness and performance.

"There is no empirical data in any controlled setting that shows one is necessarily better than the other," Bloom said.

He predicted airport security is entering a "patchwork" era, with both private and public screeners, which should give airports and federal officials more information in a few years about potential new directions.

"You develop more data, best practices and worst practices, and maybe Congress can make a better decision," he said.

For now, aviation watchers say they do not believe fliers will see much change.

"I don't think the average Sacramento flier will notice a difference if it goes private," Joe Brancatelli, an advocate for business fliers, said recently.

Under the federal law, private contract screeners are trained by the TSA, follow TSA procedures, use TSA equipment and even wear TSA badges. On-site TSA supervisors oversee operations, and the TSA pays the private company for services.

"It is still the TSA calling the shots," said Charles Schuler, a spokesman at San Francisco International, one of five airports in a 2002 pilot program for private security.

Officials with Covenant Aviation Security, the company that handles San Francisco's checkpoints, said they already have talked with Sacramento airport officials and plan to submit a proposal.

"Absolutely, we'd be very interested," said Covenant official Gerry Berry.

He said his company pays employees about the same as TSA agents but saves money with time management efficiencies, use of part-time workers, split shifts, employee retention and work attendance rates.

Fliers at Sacramento International expressed mixed feelings about news of the potential change.

Lois Davis of Chico said she believes TSA does a good job and is leery of private companies' profit motive.

"I don't think a public service should be put in the hands of a private company," she said. "A private company's goal is to make money, to profit."

Miles Vedder of Albuquerque, N.M., said TSA employees seem arbitrary and unthinking.

"I'm all about efficiency," he said. "Private enterprise is a way of doing that. I'm all for it."

Robert Boyd of Cameron Park leans toward private but said it's impossible to know which is better, given the lack of experience with private companies nationally post- 9/11.

"Private is generally more efficient and accountable," he said. "It's a reasonable option, as long as it is a serious (selection) process and not rigged in some way."

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