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Lawmaker: Privatizing airport screening could save $1 billion

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • Rep. John Mica says his study shows private screeners are 65% more efficient
  • TSA spokesman says other estimates show private screening costs more
  • 16 U.S. airports use private screeners who work under federal supervision

Washington (CNN) -- The federal government could save $1 billion in the next five years without sacrificing security by replacing federal airport screeners with private screeners, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, said Friday.

Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a frequent critic of the Transportation Security Administration, said a four-month study by his staff showed that private screeners are 65% more efficient then government screeners and could save taxpayers "at least 42%."

TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said, "It is unclear what these cost estimates are based on" and said other estimates show that private screening costs more on average.

Kimball said TSA Administrator John Pistole's No. 1 concern is security.

"It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network," Kimball said. "TSA's capacity to push out intelligence information to our front-line work force and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security."

Currently, 16 airports have opted out of the federal airport screening system and use private screeners who work under federal supervision. The difference is virtually unnoticeable to air travelers because the private screeners in the Screening Partnership Program wear the same uniforms, use the same technology and follow the same procedures.

But the debate over which system is better is a volatile one, pitting advocates of privatization against the ranks of federal workers and two unions seeking to represent the work force of about 50,000 screeners.

In January, Pistole firmly sided with those favoring government employees in the screener role.

Pistole put the brakes on expansion of privatization of the screener work force, saying he did not see "any clear or substantial advantage" to allowing other airports to privatize their screener work force.

But Mica and several airports are contesting that decision, saying that private screeners are more effective and provide better service.

"TSA employees frequently have no concern for customer service," Shawn Schroeder, acting director of aviation at Springfield-Branson National Airport in Missouri, wrote to the House committee. "We feel participating in the (private screening program) will increase screening efficiency and flexibility, and improve the customer service experience."

Mica's study, released Friday, compares checkpoint operations at Los Angeles International Airport, which uses federal screeners, with those at San Francisco International Airport, which uses private screeners. It concludes that the government spends $4.22 screening each passenger in Los Angeles, versus $2.42 at San Francisco.

San Francisco screeners were 65% more efficient, screening 16,113 passengers on average last year, compared with 9,765 in Los Angeles. San Francisco also had significantly lower recruiting costs, training costs and attrition.

Mica said he is taking several steps to pressure the TSA into expanding the use of private screeners, including setting aside about $270 million of the TSA's aviation security budget for such screening.

Mica said tests show that private screeners perform "statistically significantly better" than government screeners in tests of airport checkpoints. But the Government Accountability Office says it "did not notice any difference" during covert checkpoint testing in 2007. Both groups failed to find concealed bomb components, the GAO said. Test results are not publicly disclosed.