Regional Airports Seek To Opt Out Of Federal Screening Program

With most of the nation's airports taking a wait-and-see approach to the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) "Opt Out" security screening program, at least two regional airports are jumping at it.

Agreeing that screening decision-making authority should be decentralized, James Bennett, CEO for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told the committee that TSA's "rigid personnel policies" are a big reason why the agency still has a high turnover rate. Bennett was also representing the Airport Legislative Alliance and the two main U.S. airport trade groups, Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives.

TSA Acting Deputy Administrator Thomas Blank admitted that the national screener attrition rate has been about 24 percent annually over the last two years. But that compares favorably to the more than 100 percent annual turnover rate just before 9/11.

John DeMell, president of one of the first firms on the QVL, FirstLine Transportation Security, which is managing screening operations at Kansas City International Airport, said his firm has gotten attrition down to about 1 or 2 percent.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he sympathizes with the airports. TSA's "rigid, centralized control gives little weight to airport diversity," he said.

At T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., the lack of localized decision-making authority forces the airport's federal security director to "do the dance," said Mark Brewer, CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corp., which overseas Providence and several other smaller Rhode Island airports. The "dance" is what happens under the TSA-imposed screener cap for the airport, when screening personnel must be quickly shuffled to keep the checkpoint lines down. The only way to make this work is through mandatory overtime, Brewer emphasized.

At least T.F. Green is now lucky enough to be part of a TSA pilot program in which TSA's security director is allowed greater input in selecting job applicants to hire as screeners, Brewer added.

For his part, TSA's Blank did not deny that managing the screener workforce from Washington has been a challenge. To increase its responsiveness to local conditions, the agency has been emphasizing the use of part-time workers or workers who are willing to "job-share" the same 80-hour full-time equivalent position. Under Opt Out, in fact, Blank said TSA wants to explore sharing screeners with airport authorities, who can assign the same workers to other jobs when the volume at the checkpoints eases up.

The only legislator at the hearing who came out against using private firms was ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Mass.), who also recognized that TSA has been struggling to efficiently manage the screener workforce. ?



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