Opting Out of Opt-out: TSA unveils its program guidelines; airports see little motivation to change

Aug. 8, 2004


Opting Out Of Opt-Out

TSA unveils its program guidelines; airports see little motivation to change

By John F. Infanger

August 2004

LAS VEGAS — Prior to the unveiling of the opt-out program guidelinesby the Transportation Security Administration during the conventionof the American Association of Airport Executives here in June, quitea few airport directors were expressing an interest in raising theirhands to be considered for taking over control of screening activities at their airports. After the unveiling, however, the interest faded significantly as directors were left with too many unanswered questions for what is now officially known as the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). TSA’s response is that this is a work in progress and it indeed may be as Congressman John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, presses TSA to enhance the guidelines so that they are more acceptable to airports.

Opt-Out Milestones

Key dates in the TSA’s opt-out program:

• November 19 to December 10, 2004: Airports can apply with TSA to opt out of the federal screening program. During the late 2004 time period, TSA will be pre-qualifying private security firms that seek to provide passenger and baggage screening services.
• December 2004 to February 2005: Selection of airports for participation in the Screening Partnership Program is expected to be made by TSA.
• Spring 2005: TSA selects the private screening firms that have qualified. TSA says participating airports will have the opportunity to have ‘input’ in the selection process.
• Late 2005: Screening operations will be transferred to qualified airports.

The guidelines are the next step in an ongoing program as directed by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, following the TSA’s pilot program under which five airports representing the various categories of airports retained private screening or, as in the case of the Jackson Hole, WY airport, continued to perform the screening functions itself. The other four airports in the pilot program include:

• San Francisco International;
• Kansas City International;
• Greater Rochester (NY) International; and
• Tupelo (MS) Regional.

The guidelines were officially introduced by Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security for the Department of Homeland Security. However, it was in a subsequent session headed by TSA deputy administrator Stephen McHale that the new guidelines were explained and distributed.

“This is a first step,” explains McHale, who has since submitted his resignation to TSA.

Initial Reactionsby Airports
“I see no advantage to opt out,” says Ralph Tonseth, A.A.E., director of aviation for the San Jose International Airport. “I don’t consider this a legitimate type of opt-out program.”

FirstLine security screeners on the job at Kansas City International.
FirstLine Transportation Security employees provide the passenger and baggage screening services at Kansas City International. Because of the unique layout of the airport, with 12 passenger checkpoints and narrow corridors, it is an employee-intensive effort with some 700 FirstLine employees. For comparison, says company president John DeMell, “Atlanta has three checkpoints.”

Comments Randall Walker, C.M., director of aviation for Las Vegas McCarran International, “I don’t think anything I heard today will give me any reason to opt out.

“The other issue I see is the whole budget process.

“Quite honestly, I’m quite disappointed.”

From Tim Campbell, A.A.E., executive director for Salt Lake City International: “Ditto.”

Yet, says Charles ‘Chip’ Snowden, A.A.E., the COO for the Jacksonville International Airport, “We’re interested in opting out [although] it’s something that our local FSD (federal security director) hasn’t been happy with.”

Among concerns expressed during the AAAE event are the ongoing budget/money questions that continue to plague TSA activities agency-wide; liability; the level of control airports and/or their private contractors will have, with the FSD retaining full oversight authority; and, should an airport be able to operate the screening at less than it currently costs TSA, what happens to the money saved?

As expressed to TSA’s McHale by a representative from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, a significant question is whether or not interested airports will be given some sort of benchmarking data on TSA’s performance and costs related to individual airports. In other words, will an airport have benchmark data with which to compare itself as it looks into whether or not getting into the program is worth it?

According to McHale, airports will also be allowed to spend more money than currently being allocated by TSA at a respective airport, should it desire to do so.

“This is a security partnership,” says McHale, who says the guidelines set out the principles of the mission, which is first and foremost security. Principle No. 2, he says, is that “customer service counts.”

McHale estimates that Congress will be appropriating some $2.2 billion for screening operations in the coming fiscal year.

Other Parts of the Guidelines
The most significant date related to the opt-out program is November 19, 2004, at which time airports can apply to take part in the program. “It is the airport authority that must apply,” explains McHale. In addition, various airports can apply as a “group.” he says.

He says the initial window of opportunity will be “three to four weeks,” after which time TSA will not take any more applications for the first round of applications. However, McHale says he expects that the agency will “periodically” open the application process in the future.

It will be the TSA administrator, he says, who will ultimately decide which airports will be allowed to opt out. The TSA will create a list of qualified vendors, and airports that seek to operate the screening themselves will need to be qualified by the agency. For example, Jackson Hole Airport is a qualified vendor. The actual contract, be it by the airport or a private screening firm, will be with the TSA, according to McHale.

One of the primary concerns of the TSA, he says, will be what happens to TSA employees currently on the job. They will need to have the option to stay on the job, he says.

Questions Still to be Resolved
Some of the key issues still needing to be addressed by TSA include:

  • The actual application process — TSA will be issuing more definitive guidelines.
  • Training — TSA expects to give training oversight authority to the FSDs and private contractors.
  • Performance measurements.
  • How the actual transfer of responsibility will be handled. The agency will be issuing more definitive guidelines for this as well, particularly how to handle the transition without affecting security.
Facilitating SIDA Access Control

Goddard Technology Corporation of Greenville, SC, introduces the WinBadge NoFly Review, designed to facilitate background checks and access control to an airport’s SIDA.

The Jackson Hole Experience
Also on hand at the Las Vegas session was George W. Larson, director of the Jackson Hole Airport, which he says had been doing its own passenger and baggage screening for some 20 years prior to 9/11.
“We knew how to do it,” he says.

“There is a profit motive involved,” he adds. “I believe revenue enhancement is an opportunity that people should look at.”

Larson explains that Jackson Hole has two TSA employees on hand at the facility — a full-time deputy security director and the FSD, who is at the airport twice a week.

Other points from Larson:

  • “The learning curve, if you haven’t done a government contract, is very steep.” It takes six to 12 months, he says
  • The airport provides all space requirements for screeners.
  • TSA is looking at how to relieve airports of associated liability, “so that concern should go away.”
  • Regarding the private contractors who are looking at qualifying with TSA: “The competition, I think, will be fierce.”

The ContractorsPoint of View
AIRPORT BUSINESS talked with two of the companies which are currently providing private contract screening at the pilot program airports: Covenant and FirstLine Transportation Security. It is expected that the companies currently in place will have their contracts renewed, at least for the short term, after November 19, say officials.

Cargo Security: ‘Airports are our principal partner in security’

The words are from TSA deputy administrator StephenMcHale, who was at the Las Vegas meeting to relate to airportselements of the opt-out program and to emphasize their role in achieving safer cargo shipments. Also on hand was Stephen A. Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, who’s primary message was to “debunk” myths, particularly in the mainstream media, that little was being done to protect aircraft that transport freight.

McHale, who since the June meeting announced his departure from TSA, says there are three levels of threat:

• customs — movement of goods into/out of the U.S.;
• explosives; and
• a person who would stow away with the intent of taking over the aircraft.

According to McHale, technology is not yet available to feasibly screen everything cargo-related; however, he says, “we want to get to the point where all high-risk cargo is fully screened.” First, though, technology needs to be available that allows for identification of high-risk cargo.

McHale reports that there are currently some 450,000 known shippers who are on TSA’s known shipper list. This is a voluntary program at present, but McHale says regulations are forthcoming that will make it a requirement.

“We need to take a look at the entire flow of the shipment, and this is where the airports come in,” he explains. McHale says TSA added an additional 100 cargo inspectors this year and he expects the agency will add another 100 in 2005.

Ultimately, he says, what is needed is an effective security program which brings about a high level of security but one that doesn’t shut down the cargo industry.

Meanwhile, Alterman of the Cargo Airline Association says he was in Las Vegas to help “debunk some of the myths” related to cargo screening. Those myths include:

• that there is no cargo security;
• that the cargo industry refuses to spend money on security — “that’s strictly garbage,” he says; and
• air cargo security today is limited to the known shipper program — “that’s simply not true,” he says, “we’ve invested in cargo security from pickup to delivery.”

Alterman says that critical areas that still need to be addressed include getting the official Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) from TSA regarding cargo security requirements, as directed by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and having a greater interest and emphasis on what he sees as a successful canine inspection program.

The third panelist in Las Vegas addressing cargo security was Joseph Paresi, president of L-3 Security & Detection Systems. He offered an overview of new explosives detection equipment under development, particularly as it relates to screening freight. There is currently “no certified pallet solution,” says Paresi, though it is under development. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is currently researching two new systems for cargo. He projects it will take three to five years before such systems are available for industry use.

According to Paresi, some 70 percent of air cargo is “break bulk” — that is, it can fit/be screened by existing EDS equipment.

Covenant has been performing the screening services at San Francisco International and Tupelo, MS. Covenant president Gerry Berry had just come from a meeting with Rep. Mica’s staff when he was interviewed by AIRPORT BUSINESS. He says he came away from that meeting encouraged that Congress and TSA will enhance the opt-out guidelines to make them more acceptable to airports.

“It was kind of discouraging guidance,” says Berry of the initial unveiling. “I think airports wanted a bigger piece of the action — control. That’s why the aviation oversight committee is working on it.

“I think they’re going to change some things on it. They’re going to make sure there’s something about liability coverage in there, and they’re going to talk about exactly how you transition from TSA screeners to airports. I think they want to empower the airport directors more.”

For Covenant, says Berry, the experience has been positive, although the requirements of screening at the two airports are significantly different. SFO is a Category X airport, while Tupelo is a Category 4.

Covenant has a total of 1,080 employees working at San Francisco and nine at Tupelo. The most significant challenge, says Berry, is just making sure the employees show up for work each day because of the critical nature of their jobs. He says that on average Covenant has about a 2 percent daily no-show rate. Some airports, he says, have no-show rates as high as 20 percent. “It’s attendance; attrition; control of overtime,” he says of the major issues.

Regarding overall costs, says Berry: “All I can tell you is that we’ve brought our costs down. I’ve seen the overtime rates that certain Category X airports have and they’re running at numbers that are well beyond anything we would ever dream of. We’re trying to hold it to about 3-to-5 percent overtime; that’s probably the right model.”

He expects that both airports will remain with the private contractor program after November 19.

At FirstLine, the challenge is the unique layout of the airport it screens — Kansas City International. Explains FirstLine president John DeMell, “It’s a unique challenge because of the physical layout of the airport. It’s actually three separate buildings that are very narrow in depth. We have 12 checkpoints for passengers and five bag screening checkpoints. Once you’re through a passenger checkpoint, you no longer have access to creature comforts. It puts extra demand on our personnel.”

In all, FirstLine has 700 employees at Kansas City.

DeMell says a key advantage of private screening is it allows the FSD to focus solely on the security function. “We manage the workforce; It allows FSDs to focus exclusively on security and not on having to manage all those people.”