Oct. 22--A Transportation Security Administration plan to shift a long-held security responsibility away from the federal government and to airports themselves could cost the facilities more than $200 million a year.
Since its inception more than a decade ago, TSA has maintained personnel at some airport exit lanes -- the zones or hallways that arriving passengers pass through as they exit a terminal. The goal is to ensure that no unauthorized people use those exit lanes to enter the terminal without passing through proper screening.
But TSA recently started notifying airports that, starting in January, it will become their responsibility to guard those exit lanes -- and pay for the work. The move will affect about 350 exit lanes at 145 airports, including heavily-trafficked facilities in Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis, says Joel Bacon, vice president of legislative affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives.
It's a significant shift, given the importance of exit lane security. A 2010 incident at the Newark airport showed just how seriously exit lane breaches are taken. When a man walked the wrong way through an exit lane, officials grounded flights and shut down the terminal for hours. Passengers were stranded, and thousands had to be re-screened, including many who had already boarded airplanes. The incident garnered scrutiny from Congress and was an embarrassment to TSA.
TSA officials say the shift in responsibility is a smart one for the agency, allowing it to more efficiently target its resources toward high-risk passengers. The Department of Homeland Security estimates in its 2014 budget that the move will save $88.1 million annually and result in a decrease in nearly 1,500 full-time equivalent workers.
But airport officials and the associations representing them say the decision is a sudden one that could have huge budgetary and operational impacts for airports that aren't ready to take on the new responsibilities. They estimate that the cost of adding new exit-lane personnel will collectively cost them more than $200 million annually.
Bacon said airport associations only learned about the shift from TSA this spring, and this month, some airports began receiving letters formally describing the plans. Airports will have to oversee the exit lanes using private security, local law enforcement or perhaps technological solutions such as remote video monitors. Their plans must be approved by TSA.
While they can file a petition to appeal the move, TSA has made it clear that the policy isn't going to change. "They have no choice in the matter," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for TSA. Airports are currently mulling whether to file a federal lawsuit to challenge the plan.
Historically, security screening was the responsibility of airlines, whose work was overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the feds took over the responsibility through the TSA. Bacon says it's a big deal for that responsibility to now go to airports, since they haven't had it before.
Airport officials also say that with the change coming in January -- the middle of the fiscal year -- finding flexibility in their budget will be difficult. They also emphasize that it's unlikely they can implement a safe technological solution as quickly as they would need to comply with the deadline. And even if they could, the investment would be risky because TSA has never released national standards indicating what such a system would look like.
Moreover, airports and airlines alike agree that airports will pay for the added security costs by hiking up the fees they charge airlines. Airlines, in turn, will pass that cost on to customers. That's why the airline industry also opposes the move. Lawrence Krauter, director of the airport in Spokane, Wash., says the move will cost his airport $300,000 annually, which will be levied on the airlines. "We don't have $300,000 in the budget," Krauter says. "The airlines aren't happy. It will increase their rental fees in the building. I can't wait to have that discussion," he said sarcastically.
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