Harrisburg International Airport May Use Private Screeners

An official at Harrisburg International Airport wants to explore the possibility of having federal baggage screeners work for a private company, a move that would give HIA more control over scheduling and hiring decisions.

"Right now we can't tell them when to open or when to close" a baggage-screening line, HIA Aviation Director Fred Testa said.

The screeners are federal employees who work for the Transportation Security Administration.

"If a new airline starts here tomorrow, I still have the same TSA screeners." Testa said. "I don't want lines. It might take six months to a year to get an increase in people. If I am the contractor, I can hire people right away, faster than the federal government."

In 2004, Congress gave airports the option to apply to the TSA to hire private contractors to handle baggage screening. The TSA retains regulatory oversight.

Seven of the more than 400 commercial airports that could apply for the change have done so. Five of those airports were part of a pilot study.

Testa considers it significant that all five airports continued to use private contractors. The five are San Francisco International, Kansas City International, Greater Rochester International in New York, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi.

"They must see some benefit," Testa said. "The fact that only seven of 400 have applied doesn't mean it's a bad idea. The bureaucracy may be far more daunting than anybody thought."

The airport in Sioux Falls, S.D., also has applied, and another airport withdrew its application, according to the TSA.

Since floating the idea, Testa said, he has been contacted by 11 private screening companies, by airports in Denver and Minneapolis, and by the International Air Transport Association. The association is a worldwide trade group that represents airlines.

HIA screeners who are federal workers would be assured the first option on jobs, which would have comparable benefits. "No one will lose their job," Testa said, referring to rank-and-file screeners. He added that he would hire his own managers.

TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said changes in the rules were made so airports could add screeners faster by hiring them locally. Before, all hiring was centralized.

Kayser agreed that federal screeners would become employees of a private company if the airport opted for the change. It is less clear whether existing management could be replaced, he added.

Testa said the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which owns the airport, would have to make a final decision to follow through with the idea. Testa has outlined the concept in a memo to TSA workers.

HIA has about 62 screeners, said Charles Chase, the TSA director in Harrisburg. Roughly four in five are full-time workers and the rest work part time. Four are managers.

Early weekday mornings are the peak periods, Chase said. The average wait time for passengers in April was 2.8 minutes, compared to 3.3 minutes for similarly sized airports, he said.

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