TSA Opts Out Of Letting Airports Opt Out

“Opt Out” is a popular term from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  For passengers ‘opting out’ means that they can avoid the advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanners in favour of a thorough pat down, for airports ‘opting out’ means that they have chosen to utilize a private security firm to handle their front line passenger security rather than use TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO), under the strict guidance of the TSA.

With tension between the TSA, passengers and airports peaking towards the end of 2010, a number of airports announced that they’d be opting out of the TSA handling their passenger security screening.   In December of 2010, as airports became more vocal about exploring the option to opt out of TSA handling their security, the TSA publicly stated that its policy was to neither support or discourage the decision to seek private contractors under the Screening Partnership Program

… now, a month after the TSA stated it was officially neutral on airports choosing to take part in the Screening Partnership Program, TSA Administrator John Pistole has announced the following:

Shortly after beginning as TSA Administrator, I directed a full review of TSA policies with the goal of helping the agency evolve into a more agile, high-performing organization that can meet the security threats of today and the future. As part of that review, I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports, as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time. The airports that currently use contractor screening will continue to be regulated by TSA and required to meet our high security standards.”

This statement from Administrator Pistole is exactly opposite statements from the TSA in late December 2010 stating that the agency would work with airports to explore their front line security options.

The decision of the TSA to block airports from seeking private security firms from handling their passenger screening come at an interesting time … just months before the TSA’s TSOs vote to decide whether they will unionize. At this time will balloting is scheduled to take place between March 9th and April 19th, with the Federal Labor Relations Authority counting the votes on the 20th of April.

John Gage, the President of the American Federation of Government Employees, the AFL-CIO Union TSA TSOs would be represented by, has offered a rare piece of praise for Administrator Pistole’s decision stating, “We applaud Administrator Pistole for recognizing the value in a cohesive federalized screening system and work force. The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11.”

However, the TSA’s decision to block additional airports from joining the Screening Partnership Program, comes with consequences … if not only a thinly veiled political move. Airports that feel the TSA is meeting their expectations on both a security level and a passenger interaction level no longer have a choice in deciding who to work with.  Many airports have long since expressed frustration the lack of recourse with the TSA.  Utilizing a private security firm to undertake the front line passenger screening process gives airports the ability to demand a certain level of customer experience be met, while meeting security criteria with the ability to replace security screeners, or a whole company, if obligations are not met.

The unionization of the TSA may further exacerbate the sense airports have that under performing TSA TSOs will not be disciplined or removed from their airport if problems arise.

Once an airport is locked into the TSA, and the TSA is locked into a unionized front line of TSOs, the ability to be a “a more agile, high-performing organization” is severely hampered. The TSA needs to be flexible and once flexibility to address immediate needs gets sidelined by union negotiations regarding flexibility, the traveling public ultimately suffers.

Administrator Pistole and the TSA may have made not only a political gaff with the decision to block the Screening Partnership Program, but also a gaff in terms of implementing a more effective front line security option for airports.

Happy Flying!



  1. Pistole says “I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to [expand the program beyond the current 16 airports] at this time.” That is the wrong test. If there is no disadvantage, then that should be good enough.

    What he did not mention were the disadvantages of turning the program into a monopoly, which disadvantages are well stated by Fish.

    So, he does not see any current advantage to continuing with the current policy, nor does he see any current disadvantage. However we can clearly see a potential disadvantage with changing the policy. He ignores this. Where is the press? Why are they not questioning him on what is, prima facie, a case of maladministration?

  2. Is this move by Pistole supposed to be another gift to government unions?

    If airports opt out to private contractors, their employees won’t be part of the government union. Eliminating airports’ ability to opt out guarantees more government union membership.

    What a cynical set of moves by DHS & TSA. They have an agenda other than travel security.

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