Two Airports Ask for Private Screeners

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Airport officials complain about federal security screeners, but only two airports so far have asked to switch to privately employed workers.

For the past nine months, airports have been able to apply to the government to opt out of the federal screening system, but only Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota and Elko Regional Airport in Nevada have done so.

The House Homeland Security subcommittee that covers infrastructure protection was holding a hearing Thursday to examine why.

The Transportation Security Administration, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was ordered by Congress to replace private screeners hired by airlines with a better-paid and better-trained federal work force. Mike Marnach, director of the Sioux Falls airport, said it is time to try something other than the government model.

''We like it, it's OK, but I'm not sure it's the most efficient for the taxpayer,'' Marnach said. The airport plans the switch in the fall.

Five airports that already use private screeners under a pilot program will continue to do so, the TSA said Wednesday in announcing it has approved the switch for Sioux Falls.

Marnach said the private screeners working on Sept. 11, 2001, did what they were supposed to.

''Box cutters and 3½-inch knives weren't prohibited and the terrorists knew that,'' he said. ''My board thinks private companies didn't get a fair shake.''

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a member of the House subcommittee, opposes private screeners.

''I won't be flying out of Sioux Falls,'' said DeFazio, D-Ore. ''Before 9/11, screeners had trouble in tests detecting fully assembled large-caliber handguns and today that's not a problem.''

Like all airports, Sioux Falls will not be able to choose which company provides the screening service. The TSA will make that selection from a list of 34 approved companies.

The TSA hired more than 50,000 screeners in less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, though that number has been trimmed to about 45,000.

Congress also ordered five commercial airports to use privately employed screeners, who are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards, to serve as a comparison to the federal employees. Those airports are in San Francisco, Rochester, N.Y., Tupelo, Miss., Jackson, Wyo., and Kansas City, Mo.

Marnach said all the TSA screeners at Sioux Falls Airport will have a guaranteed job with the private screening company for at least 90 days. Then, he said, their employment will depend on how well they perform.

Airport officials say they are concerned that they would be sued if private screeners failed to prevent a terrorist attack. A law passed in 2002 gave limited legal protection to some companies involved in anti-terrorism businesses. Many airports are not sure that is enough.

Marnach said his board of directors does not think that will happen.

''I suppose some attorney would drag us in on some litigation, but we're not concerned,'' he said.