During the partial government shutdown, screeners at two Silicon Valley airports, San Francisco and San Jose International, moved thousands of people through security checkpoints.
Operations at the airports, 35 miles apart, looked similar — uniformed officers reminding people to take off their shoes and put their laptops in plastic bins — but there was one major difference: Only the officers at the San Francisco airport were getting paid.
That’s because San Francisco International is one of nearly two dozen airports across the country that use private contractors instead of the Transportation Security Administration to conduct its security screening.
As the shutdown stretched from days into weeks, growing numbers of TSA workers stopped showing up. At one point, 10 percent of TSA officers failed to report for duty.
The result: scattered staffing shortages across the country and anxiety for travelers. Airports in Baltimore, Houston and Miami were forced to temporarily close checkpoints. TSA officials conceded that many officers weren’t coming into work because of the financial hardship of working without pay.
But in San Francisco?
“Operations were normal,” said Doug Yakel, an airport spokesman.
There has long been a debate over whether airport screening should be provided by the federal government or by private companies. And the recent government shutdown — and the potential for a repeat if lawmakers can’t reach a deal with President Trump by Friday — has some wondering whether anxiety over staffing may prompt more airports to consider switching to private contractors.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airport security was handled by private contractors and paid for by the airlines. But after 9/11, those duties were turned over to the newly created TSA, which is responsible for security screening at the vast majority of the nation’s 440-plus airports.
But as part of that agreement, Congress also created a voluntary pilot program that allowed five airports to use private contractors for security screening. The program, launched in 2002, eventually was open to all airports. Today, 22 airports — including the original five: San Francisco, Kansas City International in Missouri, Greater Rochester International in New York, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Tupelo Regional in Mississippi — participate.
Why not more?
Proponents of the system say that the TSA hasn’t made it easy for airports to make the switch. The agency has final say on whether an airport can opt to have private screeners, and although requests are rarely turned down, the process could be time-consuming. Others blame inertia, saying some airports are reluctant to tinker with an arrangement that works.
“I don’t know why, but it’s just ingrained in our mind that this is the only way it’s done,” said David Inserra, a policy analyst for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, who has long advocated for the shift to the use of private companies for screening.
Among the considerations once an airport has applied for the program: The cost of private screeners cannot be greater than what it would be if the TSA remained at the airport. If approved, the TSA — not the airport — selects, pays and manages the contractor.
Private contractors are required to follow the same rules and procedures as their TSA counterparts but are given some leeway to determine how they staff checkpoints. The workers wear different uniforms, but their training, salary and benefits are about the same. The starting salary for a TSA officer is $37,455 but can be higher in some parts of the country depending on staffing needs and the cost of living.
Although the private screeners are contractors, they were paid during the shutdown when other government contractors were not because they were considered essential personnel, and failure to pay them would have violated their contract.
Evaluations of the two programs by outside firms hired by the TSA have found no significant differences between the two systems — either in cost or the ability to move passengers through checkpoints, TSA officials said.
However, studies by the Government Accountability Office note that in some instances private contractors’ costs were 2 percent to 19 percent lower than the TSA’s estimates of its costs for the same work. The GAO also said that the TSA’s calculations failed to include costs such as retirement benefits.
A TSA spokeswoman said the agency has adjusted its estimates based on the GAO’s recommendations.
The outside evaluations did not examine customer complaints, nor did they analyze absenteeism, retention or attrition of the screeners who work for private companies.
Inserra, of the Heritage Foundation, contends that private companies are better suited to the job of managing airport security. He said they are more adept at managing and retaining employees and can react more quickly to surges in passenger traffic.
“TSA’s focus should be on policy — setting the standards, developing new technology,” added Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies. “So much of TSA is devoted to managing this screener workforce. It’s doing a job that’s not inherently governmental.”
A 2004 report by the Congressional Research Service, however, found that when private companies ran security services in the years before the 9/11 attacks, their workforce suffered from low morale and high turnover — some of the same problems that plague today’s TSA. Amitay, however, maintained that new standards for training and pay have improved working conditions and morale for contractors.
But Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 32 unions, argued that security screening is best left to the federal government.
“The mission of TSA is to keep people safe,” he said. “The goal is to identify threats and prevent them from having a negative impact on our system. That is the ultimate mission statement. When you privatize, you’re going to introduce another goal into that, and that’s profit.”
Other union officials argue that the answer isn’t privatization, but a functional federal government that can pay its workers and its bills on time.
“I think throwing up our hands and turning to private security operators is not the solution here,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The federal government needs to do its job to provide the screening services.”
Added Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Transportation Department and an aviation expert: “We must never say our TSA employees are not important enough to be federal employees.”
She noted that the 9/11 attacks happened at a time when checkpoints were run by private companies.
Some of the country’s largest airports have toyed with the idea of shifting to private contractors. In 2016, after an understaffed TSA struggled to keep up with a record number of travelers, airport officials in Chicago, New York and Atlanta threatened to use private contractors.
TSA officials blamed the backups on years of cuts that forced the agency to slash its airport workforce of 45,000 by 12 percent. The furor died down after TSA officials pledged changes and persuaded Congress to beef up its staffing. The TSA has 51,000 screeners, and about 33,000 work on any given day.
Atlantic City International Airport recently shifted to private screeners after growing frustration with TSA staffing that didn’t take into account flight delays.
Stephen F. Dougherty, executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, said the TSA would regularly close the airport’s checkpoint at certain hours regardless of whether flights were delayed. As a result, hundreds of passengers missed their flights because there was no one to clear them through security.
“[Atlantic City International] prides itself on being a much more convenient, passenger- friendly airport than the larger airports in the region, and this change went against core operating principles,” he said.
Some Republican lawmakers have pushed legislation to make it easier for airports to shift to private screeners. A bill introduced by last year by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sought to, among other changes, shorten the amount of time it takes for airports to get TSA approval to make the switch. Lee is updating his bill and plans to reintroduce it this year, his spokesman said. However, a provision in legislation to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, approved last year, requires the TSA to make a decision on any application within 60 days. The agency previously had 120 days to make a decision.
Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security at Airports Council International-North America, a group that advocates for the nation’s airports, said it supports programs that give airports the flexibility they need to best serve travelers.
“Our position on [SPP], is that it should remain a viable program for any airport that wishes to participate.”