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Former NTSB director: TSA needs more money

Peter Goelz
Peter Goelz

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(CNN) -- The deadline for the Transportation Security Administration to streamline its airport screening staff arrived Tuesday with a reduction of staff, leaving only 48,000 full-time screeners of the nearly 55,000 there were in March.

Former National Transportation Safety Board Managing Director Peter Goelz joined CNN anchor Leon Harris to talk about airport security and the possible impact of the reduction. Goelz is currently vice president for crisis communications at Apco Worldwide, a public relations firm in Washington.

HARRIS: Let's talk about these cuts right now. ... Does that mean we're going to be less safe? Do we think we had been overstaffed at the beginning or what?

GOELZ: I don't think we can say we're going to be less safe. But clearly, TSA is under a budgetary crunch. They're cutting back. By the end of next year, they will be down to 45,000 full-time employees. When they say they're "rightsizing" it, that's really kind of half the answer. They do need more part-time employees. They're hiring part-time employees at Los Angeles airport, because they have a crunch at certain times of the day that full-time employees just can't meet. But I think the budgetary constraints that TSA is facing need to be monitored pretty carefully.

HARRIS: All right, if I am a member of the traveling public -- and I am -- and I happen to see and read headlines now that say TSA now is cutting back and the TSA has budget problems, what am I supposed to take from that and feel safer about?

GOELZ: Well, I think you've got a better workforce. But the jury is still out. GAO, the [General] Accounting Office, has just released a preliminary evaluation. And what it said was that we really don't know whether the federalized workforce is doing a better job than the privatized workforce that was there before. Material is still getting through.

The thing I'm most concerned about is the cutback in money that's spent on researching the next generation of detection equipment. These checkpoints are running off of 10-year-old equipment. We need the next generation that reduces human error.

HARRIS: How many airports would you say, Peter, are still operating with some of this old technology you talked about? And I know I think you've written that some of this technology is 15, 20 years old. How many of the big airports are still using outdated technology right now?

GOELZ: Well, there's been very few pieces of equipment that have been certified recently. We're talking about all of 429 airports are using equipment that was certified in the 1990s. We need to move forward. TSA had a $75 million research budget. It's been cut dramatically.

HARRIS: You say that you still have not determined whether or not the old private screening services are better than this government- funded one right now. How come we don't know that right now?

And Also, let me ask you this as well, in addition to that, I have been reading that some airports have been asking about going back to an old private system. What do you know about that?

GOELZ: Well, that's right, Leon. When we federalized the airport security services, five airports were left out, and kept their old private security forces, including San Francisco and Kansas City. Those are two pretty good sized airports. Sometime this year, there has to be an evaluation to see whether, in fact, the private security forces did a better job or not as good job as the federal forces.

And in 2004, airports are allowed to petition TSA to say we'd like to go back to the private screener force that we had before or an enhanced one, and many airports have made inquiries about that process. So I think the whole issue of who mans the screeners -- who mans the checkpoints, who pays the screeners is still an open question.

HARRIS: All right. Finally, in the final analysis then, in your estimation, how close is the government to getting the whole system right? The balance of right number of workers, right number of full- time workers, right number of part-time workers, right amount of and right placement of proper technology? On balance right now, how close are they to getting it right?

GOELZ: TSA has done an extraordinary job in terms of getting itself set up and operating. I would say that they are getting there. They need some more time, and particularly, they need some more money.

HARRIS: That's almost always the case.

GOELZ: Unfortunately.

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