San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON, D.C. Security screening run by private
contractors at San Francisco's airport is a success, director
John Martin testified Thursday, but a new federal analysis
says that all security whether performed by private
firms or the federal workforce -- is not doing an acceptable
job of protecting the flying public.
San Francisco International Airport is the largest of five
airports in the country that since November 2002 have participated
in a two-year pilot program in which private firms have been
hired, under Transportation Security Administration oversight,
to perform all passenger and baggage screening. Other airports
will get the chance to go the private route after November
Martin told a House Transportation subcommittee that the
pilot program, which employs about 1,085 screeners, "has
resulted in operations that have not only provided state-of-the-art
security, but has also delivered excellent customer service
while substantially reducing the number of screeners.''
But the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department
said tests performed on passenger and baggage screening operations
under the post-Sept. 11, 2001, airport security operation
showed no difference between those performed by private contractors
or federal employees.
"Available data from limited covert testing suggest
they performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly,''
said Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general. The specific
performance data is classified. A report from the management
consulting firm Bearing Point, conducted for the Transportation
Security Administration, echoed Ervin.
"At San Francisco, there is no evidence that it is different
than federally screened airports within its category in security
effectiveness,'' the report said.
The report also noted that the cost was about the same at
San Francisco and elsewhere and that customer satisfaction
was mixed. While waiting times for passengers were shorter
in San Francisco, the public had less confidence in a security
process not run directly by federal workers.
Martin's stand was music to the ears of the committee's Republicans,
who say the security agency's Washington bureaucracy stands
in the way of allowing airports the flexibility they need
to hire and manage their screeners, who under a Homeland Security
Department ruling aren't allowed to join unions.
"While problems with the Soviet-style federal screening
operations should raise the serious concern of Congress, anyone
who has seen the classified performance results and detection
rates of this system and does not call for reform in the program
is derelict in their responsibility,'' said Rep. John Mica,
R-Fla., the subcommittee chairman.
"That is why I have been a major proponent of a decentralized
screening program,'' he added, saying that the pilot program
"has had a very positive effect on aviation security
Mica said classified results he had seen about how well screeners
do in detecting explosive devices "scare me.''
He called for a closed meeting with Homeland Security officials
in the next 10 days to discuss ways to improve performance
and said if they wouldn't come, he would issue subpoenas for
them. But security agency officials said they wanted such
a meeting, and soon.
Some of the committee Democrats said the hiring of private
security screeners, who get the same pay and benefits as those
who work directly for the federal government agency, was part
of a Bush administration drive to privatize the federal workforce.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think TSA is almost complicit
so we can go to private security screeners,'' said Rep. Robert
He and other committee members said the Transportation Security
Administration has given the airports in the pilot program
flexibility denied to the federal security directors at airports
with federal workers. For instance, at SFO, contractor Covenant
Aviation Security has made the airport the first in the country
to employ part-time screeners, 143 of them, to help at peak
times and keep passenger lines moving.
Covenant also can use screeners for non-screening functions
and has an easier time making hiring decisions, without Washington's
But Martin said the airport's embrace of new technology set
San Francisco apart. San Francisco screens 85 percent of checked
baggage for explosives, using new three-dimensional CAT scan
machines under a $100 million program.
The airport also has a central video control room where security
officers can watch all 39 passenger security lanes, at 11
checkpoints, and quickly move screeners to handle lines.
The airport also uses biometrics to screen employees entering
the airfield, but not getting aboard planes, Martin said.
Martin said he wants to make the private screeners permanent.
"I think we are a lot safer by having the in-line screening
machines for checked luggage,'' he said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said it is no wonder that airports
are interested in using private firms, if the security agency
gives them extra leeway. His questioning prompted the agency's
acting administrator, David Stone, to pledge to give all airport
security directors more flexibility to handle their local
Also, DeFazio said, if the public says it feels safer with
federal employees as screeners, there shouldn't be a rush
to privatize the system.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, said, "We should
be replicating SFO's success. The TSA should give flexibility
to all our partners, not just those in the pilot program.''