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Even if Airports Opt for Private Security, TSA and Scanners Will Remain

The agency’s personnel will remain to ensure that screenings are done correctly.

Much has been made of a letter by a member of the House suggesting that U.S. airports “optout” of security screening conducted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in favor of screenings conducted by private security firms. However, it has been largely ignored that even if an airport opts out, the TSA, and its scanning equipment aren’t going anywhere.

An air traveler prepares to pass through the scanner at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Photo by J.J. Smith Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who was one of the authors of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (PL 107-71), says in his letter, “I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”

Airports that do opt out, would do so in favor of hiring “a certified private screening program as provided under a provision which was included as part of the original transportation security law. Under this program, TSA continues to set standards, pay all costs, and conduct performance oversight,” Mica says in his letter.

That the TSA would continue to “conduct performance oversight” at the airports has received little, or no, attention. What that means is while an airport can contract a private security company to conduct screenings of aircraft passengers and cargo, because TSA has oversight over airport security, the agency’s personnel will remain to ensure that screenings are done correctly, using the TSA’s scanning equipment. That means the TSA can ensure a contractor conducts the screening of passengers and cargo the way it wants it done; using the scanning equipment provided by the TSA—including the scanners that produce naked images of passengers—or the intensified “pat downs” of passengers. Basically, if an airport opts out, nothing changes.

Justine Harclerode, a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee minority staffer, says Mica’s letter is “not a reaction to the controversy with the scanners” (that the scanners reveal too much about the person being scanned, and those who refuse to be scanned are subject to a pat down, including of their genital areas). “It just so happens that his letter and the patdown issue occurred at the same time,” Harclerode said.

So why encourage airports to opt out of security provided by the TSA at a time when the Al-Qaeda terrorists are increasingly targeting airliners?

Harclerode says it is to reduce the size of the TSA’s workforce by getting airports to contract with private security.

In addition, Mica writes in his letter: “Past studies have indicated that private screening operations’ performance is equal to, or ‘statistically significantly better than’ the all-federal operations. Furthermore, almost all of the positive innovations that have been adopted by the TSA in the screening process have emanated from private screening operations.

“Better performance, customer service and more efficient operations can be achieved” by airports that convert to private security, Mica says. While that might be true, the private security will remain under the standards and scrutiny of the TSA, a fact that has been mostly ignored.