A deadline approaching, airports await guidelines for hiring private screeners

Friday, October 22nd 2004, 2:47 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With a deadline looming, the government has yet to come up with guidelines for commercial airports that want to replace federal baggage and passenger screeners with privately employed workers.

Officials at some of the nation's 445 airports say they're frustrated with the 2-year-old government work force. They say federal rules don't allow the flexibility to reassign workers to handle surges in air travel, which sometimes result in long waits for passengers at security checkpoints.

But those considering hiring private companies say they can't make a decision because they lack crucial information.

The application period begins Nov. 19 and will likely end three weeks later, but the Transportation Security Administration hasn't announced qualified private security companies. Nor has it established criteria for airports to participate in the program.

The agency hasn't even prepared a final application for airports to fill out.

George Doughty, executive director of Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa., said he needs to know who will be liable for security breaches or terrorist attacks, and how the contracts with private companies will be managed.

``The devil's in the details,'' Doughty said.

Bob Parker, spokesman for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said more specifics are needed before a decision can be made.

TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter said the agency has set up an e-mail address so airports can submit specific questions. Until then, she said, ``We don't have a specific date on final guidance at this time as we continue to work a few issues _ including liability.''

Congress created the TSA to take over airport screening after the Sept. 11 attacks drew attention to shortcomings with the privately employed workers. Undercover agents routinely slipped fake weapons, knives and explosives past the poorly trained, poorly paid screeners. Morale was low and turnover high.

Now, there are about 47,000 government workers at 440 airports checking passengers and bags for bombs and weapons. But the law that turned screening over to the TSA also allows airports to go back to private screeners _ under TSA supervision _ beginning Nov. 19.

Some airport directors think security should remain a federal responsibility because private companies will put profit before the public interest.

Many airports are happy with the TSA screeners' performance and plan to continue with them.

``It's working here,'' said Logan International Airport spokesman Phil Orlandella.

Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, estimates 20 to 30 airports _ including some of the nation's largest _ will opt out of the current system.

``It is directly attributable to the failure of TSA to manage the work force properly,'' van Beek said.

Federal screeners, unhappy at the prospect of losing their jobs just two years after most of them started, held a news conference in Detroit on Tuesday to oppose turning over screening duties to private companies.

``It's bad for morale, which is bad for security,'' said Peter Winch, organizer for the American Federal of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners at 60 airports.

Private screeners already are working at five airports under a pilot program ordered by Congress when it created the TSA.

Those airports use screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested by the government. All five _ in San Francisco, Tupelo, Miss., Rochester, N.Y., Kansas City, Mo., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. _ say they're pleased with the way the private screeners have performed.

``Flexibility and creativity are the pluses,'' said San Francisco International Airport spokesman Mike McCarron. The security company, Covenant Aviation Security, monitors security lines with closed circuit television and moves screeners around to cope with the lines. The company has also hired people to handle baggage exclusively, reducing the number of screeners injured by lifting heavy bags.

Kansas City International Airport spokesman Joe McBride said the contractor, FirstLine Security, has made sure there are enough screeners at each of the airport's checkpoints.

Terry Anderson, executive director of the Tupelo Regional Airport, said he won't switch to government screeners because the private screeners there are doing ``a fabulous job.''