RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're now going to hear about security at airports, where there's been so much controversy about the way passengers are being screened. Some airports are now considering replacing government security screeners with private companies. The new chairman of the House Transportation Committee has been urging airports to take the step. It's not clear whether travelers would notice much of a difference.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: As the director of Kansas City's airport, Mark VanLoh is expecting to be busy this winter:
Mr. MARK VANLOH (Director, Kansas City International): I will be giving a lot of tours in the next few months, from airports all over the country, coming to Kansas City to check us out.
NAYLOR: They'll be coming to check out not Kansas City's terminal or runways, but its security screeners. The Kansas City International Airport is one of 17 in the U.S. where the screeners work for private contractors, not the Transportation Security Administration. And that, VanLoh says, makes a difference.
Mr. VANLOH: In my opinion, these contract employees, they're not federal employees, they're not guaranteed a job for life. And in this case of private screening, if they don't meet the performance goals or maybe they're consistently rude, or maybe they miss objects that go through the machine, they are terminated. I can't remember how easy that would be to do with a federal employee. I don't think it is.
NAYLOR: Kansas City was one of the first airports, after 9-11, to use screeners hired by private contractors. The legislation that created the TSA also gave airports the option of using private security screeners. Those that have, range in size from San Francisco's international airport to Tupelo, Mississippi's regional facility.
The private screeners operate the exact same way as they do here at Washington's Reagan National Airport, where as at most airports, the screening is conducted by the TSA. Travelers remove their shoes, take out their laptops, they go through the same full body scanners and are subject to the same pat downs. In fact, the private security firms are actually hired by the TSA, and the screeners work under TSA supervision and guidelines.
But Republican Congressman John Mica maintains the private contract screeners are better. Mica is the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Last November, before he even took the reins at the committee, he sent letters to some 200 airports, urging they consider converting from TSA screeners to a private screening program. Mica's office did not respond to requests for an interview. But it in a clip posted on his website, Mica cited a Government Accountability Office report.
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Congressman JOHN MICA (Republican, Florida; Chairman of the House Transportation Committee): The private screening under federal supervision works and performs statistically, significantly better. So our main purpose here is in getting better screening and better performance, not to mention that we can get better cost for the taxpayers.
NAYLOR: Mica says the TSA has become, in his words, an unwieldy bureaucracy with 67,000 employees, something, he said, that was never envisioned. The TSA will only say that that its officers are efficient and effective, and can respond with agility as new potential threats are identified. It's not clear that hiring private screeners saves the government any money. A two-year-old GAO report found it was actually 17 percent more expensive for the TSA to hire private contractors, but a spokesman says that gap has probably narrowed. And aviation analyst Robert Mann, a former airline executive, is dubious about returning to what he says was a fragmented system prior to 9/11.
Mr. ROBERT MANN (Aviation Analyst): It is likely that a private contractor would manage front line employees to a different customer service standard than would a federal work force. But if they're required to use the same technology, if they're required to meet the same screening standards and techniques, then the likelihood is it's a nicer wrapper on the same process.
NAYLOR: Mann says security should be focused on stopping terrorists rather than discovering objects, and that in the end, the debate over whether screeners get their paychecks directly from the TSA or from a private contractor, matters little.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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