During a rare moment of clarity in the creation of Public Law 107-71 (The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001), which created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an often overlooked provision was included … the provision for airports to be allowed choose a private security contract firm, under the guidance of the TSA, called the Screening Partnership Program.
Aviation security is a business, and an expensive business, so before we go further, lets address the costs of Screening Partnership Program.
The cost of the Screening Partnership Program, for the 2009 fiscal year, was US$151,300,000, out of the TSA’s US$5,042,297,880 budget, or roughly 3% of the annual budget. On average, airports operating under the Screening Partnership Program cost 17.4% more than their TSA run equivalent counterparts, however a streamlined process of eliminating overlapping personnel that are staffed by both the private contractors and the TSA can reduce these costs, bringing the cost to an estimated 14.5% above TSA operated airports.
Aside from cost analysis, airports participating in the Screening Partnership Program have stated they believed “private screeners would provide better customer service” and they “decided to continue using private screeners because of their satisfactory experience.” More important than customer service issues, multiple experts with access to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s audit of Screening Partnership Program airports have stated these airports scored higher than TSA operated airports during random checks of the effectiveness of their security performance.
The big issue for airports participating in the Screening Partnership Program is having competitive advantage in an enhanced customer experience. With the TSA overseeing passenger screening, when problems occur an airport has no recourse over the TSA and no recourse over the discipline or termination of a screener. With a private security contractor, an airport has the ability to see that a screener is disciplined, terminated, or even sever its ties with a security contracting firm.
With private contractor screeners knowing they are accountable, and security firms knowing that multi-million dollar contracts are at stake, security performance is enhanced … and the passenger experience is enhanced. Private security firms are excellent at meeting the requirements for airport security, while also meeting an airport and airline need to keep passengers happy.
One of the top reasons people choose not to fly over the past few years is the airport security experience. If airports can create a customer experience that is superior, they can attract more passengers, potentially recruiting passengers away from competing airports. When airports attract new flyers, or recruit them from competing airports, it increases revenue that goes back into the local economy, employs more people at the airport and can make up for the ‘streamlined’ 14.5% cost difference between TSA operated security and private contractor security under the Screening Partnership Program.
The Screening Partnership Program offers other operational benefits for aviation security on the whole. As Screening Partnership Program contractors must operate under strict TSA guidelines, generally with a higher proficiency rate since their job security is tied to performance, the ability to the more flexible in response to real threats is better enabled. Corporate run airport security offers a quicker turn around in training and a faster reaction to mandates, with less red tape and interference from performing their duties. TSA Administrator John Pistole wants the TSA to “evolve into a more agile, high-performing organization,” the way to do this is by partnering with private entities.
For those who see Screening Partnership Programs as a way to avoid Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners or ‘enhanced pat downs,’ this is not the case. All 16 airports in the United States that have passenger security handled by private security do so under strict TSA oversight, following TSA guidelines, TSA policy and TSA procedure.