Orlando Considers Hiring Private Airport Screeners
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Congress is still debating funding for the Department of Homeland Security. And there's another debate brewing locally about one of that department's most visible branches - the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA. Eighteen airports around the country have stopped using screeners from the TSA. And Orlando is considering joining them. Airport executives there say privatizing screening would be better, faster and cheaper. From member station WMFE, Renata Sago begins her report at the airport.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TSA AGENT: Make sure you push all your property in the machine, OK, folks?
RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: It's busy day at Orlando International Airport. Businessmen, retirees, children in Mickey Mouse hats pile into a long line at the security checkpoint.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPORT ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: May I have your attention, please? The carriage of liquids, gels and aerosols is prohibited.
SAGO: Donald Johnston and Kristin Chuli are headed back to Toronto, Canada, after a week-long Caribbean cruise. They're tanned and stressed.
DONALD JOHNSTON: It's like moving through a sticky substance - getting through security here. It's harder.
KRISTIN CHULI: You feel like if you say any sort of wrong word you're going to get thrown in a little back room and never get to go home ever again.
SAGO: Johnston, Chuli and 35 million other travelers pass through Orlando International every year. The airport authority has 900 TSA agents and two hopes to keep travelers safe and satisfied. Dean Asher with the airport authority says that second wish hasn't worked out.
DEAN ASHER: People come in here, and they have to wait in line for an hour. They get real unhappy. And when they make a comment, they get a negative comment from the agent when they see them - that, you know, why are the lines long? And they just say, well, that's the way it is.
SAGO: For many of the airports that have switched to private screeners, customer service has been a big complaint. Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota dropped TSA screeners a decade ago.
DAN LETTELIER: In five or six years, I don't know that I've ever received a complaint for rude treatment.
SAGO: Dan Lettelier is airport director in Sioux Falls. He says they wanted more control over operations. But even with private screeners, the TSA still oversees and trains them and also pays the contractors. Lettelier believes staffing is what makes his lines shorter and travelers happier. His contractor brings in part-timers for peak periods, something the TSA rarely does.
LETTELIER: If you need 20 people in the morning, you get 20 people all day long, whether they're really needed or not.
SAGO: Florida Congressman John Mica calls that bureaucratic and wasteful. He helped create the agency shortly after the September, 2001 terrorist attacks. Now he wants to dismantle it.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA: I refer to TSA as my bastard child. And it's gotten a little bit out of hand. And I'm just trying to rein it in.
SAGO: He wants to go back to private screeners at all 450 of the nation's commercial airports. That would free up some of the TSA's over $7 billion budget so it could focus on tracking threats.
MICA: They're not law enforcement sworn officers. They're baggage screeners.
SAGO: Mica's not alone in his frustration. Security expert Bruce Schneier spends a lot of time on planes. Like Mica, he wants the TSA to focus on the bigger picture, which is preventing attacks. But privatizing screeners, he says, is not the answer.
BRUCE SCHNEIER: What you're going to get is airport security designed to move people through quickly, which is the opposite of security.
SAGO: Schneier would rather see the TSA stay in charge of screening and just do a better job training its agents.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPORT SECURITY AREA)
SAGO: Back at Orlando International Airport, agents in blue shirts direct traffic in the long security line, while traveler Don Johnston stands, puzzled.
JOHNSTON: It's a dance that I don't know what steps to.
SAGO: Orlando Airport officials say they'll make their decision in May on whether to privatize screeners. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando.