TSA Seems to be Leaning Towards Commercial Screeners

One RFP will be issued today and submissions under another solicitation will be due later this week on two different airport screening programs -- one "micro" and one "macro" -- which will help determine whether U.S. airports will continue to use federalized TSA screeners or revert to commercial screeners.

At the micro level, TSA plans to issue today a request for proposal for commercial passenger and baggage screening services at the Key West International Airport and the Florida Keys Marathon Airport. If these Florida airports ultimately switch from a TSA workforce to a commercial screening company, they will become the seventh and eighth airports in the U.S. to rely on a private company - rather than the U.S. Government -- to provide federally-mandated screeners.

Even though the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November 2001, (the law that federalized nationwide screening in the first place) created a pilot program under which five U.S. airports would continue to use commercial screeners, only one other airport has opted to switch back from TSA screeners to commercial screeners.

The five airports enrolled in the original pilot program are located in San Francisco, CA; Kansas City, MO; Rochester, NY; Jackson Hole, WY; and Tupelo, MS. The one airport that has thus far chosen to revert to commercial screeners, under what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls its Screening Partnership Program, is in Sioux Falls, SD.

Sioux Falls Regional Airport: Private future?

TSA announced earlier this month that it plans to issue its official RFP for Key West and Marathon airports today and that it anticipates holding a pre-proposal conference for prospective screening vendors at the Key West Airport on December 19.

On the macro level, TSA is also planning to take a much broader and deeper look at the economic arguments that underpin the Screening Partnership Program. To that end, TSA plans to enlist the analytic services of a consulting firm that can help build the "business case" for and against the transition by individual airports from TSA to commercial screeners.

Airports might contemplate switching to commercial screeners if they felt that would give them more flexibility in scheduling their personnel. However, they might choose to stick with TSA screeners if they thought that going commercial could open themselves up to potentially crippling insurance premiums and liability lawsuits in case of a terrorist attack.

A careful reading of TSA's "sources sought notice" and the accompanying statement of work seems to indicate that TSA officials are beginning to lean towards the commercialization of the nation's screening force, particularly at smaller airports.

The statement of work includes the obligatory references to balanced thinking and fair-mindedness. "As steward of the taxpayers' funds, TSA seeks the most efficient means of deploying resources while maintaining a high level of security," the document explains.

However, the statement of work seems to reveal an inclination on TSA's part to build a case in favor of future shifts to commercial companies.

"This [business case analysis] will likely play an important role in any debate over whether airport screening should be privately run or federally run," the document continues."An evaluation by an external contractor should anticipate probable lines of questioning from Congressional and Administrative oversight (such as GAO and OMB), airport authorities, the airline community, private security companies, and internal TSA and Homeland Security (DHS) stakeholders."

The winning consulting firm will be asked to build analytic models that can compare historical cost information from the five pilot airports with historical data from comparable airports using TSA workers. It will also be expected to perform a "Return on Investment" analysis to determine what the taxpayer is deriving from the current Screening Partnership Program.

Perhaps most revealing was TSA's requirement that the winning consultant develop a model that can track various airport screening methods. This analytic model would study the concept of placing several airports that opt for commercial screeners under the same TSA contract. It would also look at "privatizing smaller airports and maintaining Federal screeners at large airports."

TSA will also expect its consultant to recommend ways "for making privatization more cost effective" and "for making the public-private partnership better."

It has been more than two years since airports have been allowed to "opt-out" of the TSA screening program and revert to commercial screeners, but only one airport (in Sioux Falls) has chosen to do so.

It now looks as if TSA hopes to put this option on a faster track. According to TSA documents, the agency plans to award the contract by February 2007 and give the winning consulting firm only 75 days from contract award to complete its analytic efforts under the contract.