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Montana airport gets rare TSA concession: Private screeners

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 10:11 PM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
Instead of flying in federal employees, the TSA will allow West Yellowstone Airport in Montana to hire local screeners.
Instead of flying in federal employees, the TSA will allow West Yellowstone Airport in Montana to hire local screeners.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Instead of flying in federal employees, airport will be able to hire locally
  • Plan may save the federal government money
  • TSA decision to allow private security workforce is a rare concession these days

Washington (CNN) -- Every spring, when West Yellowstone Airport in Montana opens for the season, the TSA flies in six people to staff the airport's one-lane security checkpoint. Every fall, it flies the screeners home.

All of that will soon change.

The TSA said Monday it will allow the state-owned airport to hire a private company to conduct the TSA screening, making those six screener jobs available to local residents and, quite possibly, saving the federal government money.

Locally hired screeners cost half as much as flown-in screeners, because the government doesn't have to pay for travel, per diem and housing, according to a 2008 report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

That came to $219 a day, versus $511 per day, in 2005, the year cited in the report.

But the TSA's decision to allow West Yellowstone to privatize its security workforce is a rare concession these days. The TSA simultaneously rejected requests to privatize screening at two other airports: Bert Mooney Airport, also in Montana, and Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida.

TSA Administrator John Pistole one year ago put the brakes on the government's privatization program, saying he would approve contract security only if airports could demonstrate it would not hurt security and if there was a "clear and substantial" advantage to the federal government.

Pistole's action demonstrated his philosophy that protecting aviation is a federal government responsibility, and that privatizing the workforce can decrease his flexibility to move screeners between airports in response to threats.

Not everyone agrees. On Tuesday, a House Homeland Security subcommittee will take up the question of whether airport security is best provided by government screeners or the private sector.

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, said the "Screening Partnership Program," as the privatization effort is formally known, creates jobs by replacing federal screeners with private screeners, without impacting security.

Though little noticed by the traveling public, the government already allows 16 airports to employ private screeners, including San Francisco International Airport. The private screeners wear TSA uniforms, work under TSA supervision and follow TSA rules and protocols.

But other airports want to join.

Some airport executives have argued that contract security personnel are more courteous than government workers. "It was felt that a private contractor would provide friendlier customer service to the traveling public," the head of a Roswell, New Mexico, airport wrote to Congress.

For Debbie Alke, a Montana state transportation department official who sought the change at West Yellowstone, it's a simple question of jobs.

The six TSA jobs held by nonresidents soon will be held by residents, she said.

"We support our people," she said. "Even if we could get one Montana job we would be happy."

The TSA said it soon will request bids to operate the airport's security. The change "could allow the agency to reassign federal resources to other airports, which would be advantageous to the comprehensive security network," a spokesman said.

The other two airports -- Bert Mooney and Orlando -- "failed to demonstrate an operational, security, or cost advantage that provides a clear and substantial benefit over federalized screening operations," he said.

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