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If you're flying this holiday weekend, the TSA says get to the airport at least two hours before your departure time. Thousands of people have missed flights recently because the agency's having a hard time screening increasing numbers of passengers. Now some are looking at whether private security companies could help speed up the screening process. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The excruciating wait times at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports the last couple of weeks have travelers fuming and some city officials looking for other options. Chicago Alderman Ed Burke is calling on the city to do airport security the way it's done in Kansas City, San Francisco and several smaller airports around the country. He wants to hire a private company to staff the screening checkpoints.
ED BURKE: It's working in San Francisco, isn't it? And it's working in 20 other airports around the country. What we do know is it's not working here with TSA, so maybe it's an opportunity to give private industry a chance to show whether or not they can do it right.
SCHAPER: Officials in New York, Atlanta and other cities are also taking a hard look at whether privatizing airport security might move travelers through security checkpoints more quickly.
JASON SCHWIETERMAN: I look at those lines, and just the enormity of that - just - this - there has to be a rapid response.
SCHAPER: And that didn't happen, says Joe Schwieterman, transportation professor at Chicago's DePaul University. He says TSA staffing levels are down, and budget constraints limit how many new officers can be hired. But he also points out that the long lines have been building for months, reaching a crisis point because the TSA was too slow to respond.
SCHWIETERMAN: Private firms can sort of bring something different to the table and respond much quicker. They - you know, they're not governed by the same bureaucratic rules the TSA is. And that, you know, would give us a little more freedom to try new things in the future just to make the system work better.
SCHAPER: All of Canada's airports and most in Europe use private security contractors. In San Francisco, most travelers don't even notice that the security officers there are not TSA employees. They have similar uniforms, equipment and procedures. The head of the TSA, Peter Neffenger, recently told reporters in Chicago that is by design.
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PETER NEFFENGER: Remember that private contractors contracted to the federal government. It still works for TSA. It's still a TSA management staff that runs it. The contractor doesn't work for the airport. It works for TSA. And it has to work to TSA standards and is trained in TSA standards.
SCHAPER: Neffenger says any airport in the country can apply to privatize their security, and he's open to allowing more to do so. But some experts say there's very little evidence to suggest private airport security is any better.
BRUCE SCHNEIER: Privatization doesn't actually solve any of the problems we have.
SCHAPER: Bruce Schneier is a security expert with Harvard University's Berkman Center.
SCHNEIER: The problem with the TSA right now is there aren't enough people for the demand, and that's a function of the budget. It is not a function of who signs the paychecks of the agents. It's how many agents there are.
SCHAPER: And privatization is no quick fix. Ginger Evans, who oversees Chicago's airports, says getting a private contractor vetted and approved and its staff trained and put in place could take up to two years.
SCHNEIER: The benefits are very marginal, and there's a huge cost and time associated with the transition. We're not closing the door. We'll evaluate it, along with other things for the long term, but there's a lot of other technology improvements that deserve more focus than that.
SCHAPER: The TSA is now proving to be a bit more nimble and responsive. Since the debacle in Chicago last week forced hundreds to miss their flights, a new management team is in place, along with additional staff, so wait times at O'Hare this week average only about fifteen minutes. But with airline travel reaching record levels, the TSA warns this still could be a long summer of waiting in security lines. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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