Three years after President Bush signed legislation federalizing airport security, all airports will be able to return to private baggage screeners, a plan that some officials say is premature considering the long way security still has to go at U.S. airports.
On Nov. 19, private screening companies will be able to take over work now being performed by federal screeners employed with the Transportation and Security Administration (search), the government agency created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Despite federalizing most airport screeners at the time TSA was established, the government developed five test programs in which airports could hire private baggage screeners. Those pilot programs were conducted at airports in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Kansas City, Mo.; Rochester, N.Y.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Tupelo, Miss.
Screeners on the public rolls and those who are privately contracted "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly," Department of Homeland Security (search) Inspector General Clark Ervin told lawmakers Thursday.
"TSA's tight control over pilot programs restricted flexibility," Ervin said. He cited the inability for contractors to run their own hiring and the difficulty in getting TSA headquarters to respond to questions or requests for assistance.
Though Ervin, one of several officials from TSA, DHS and private groups who delivered testimony to Congress on how to broaden private security, was very critical of the way TSA operates, he qualified his findings.
"There is not a sufficient basis at this time to determine conclusively whether private security performs equal to or better than TSA screening," he said.
Acting TSA Administrator David Stone conceded some of Ervin's criticism, and said he is committed to decentralizing airport security operations while maintaining a uniform security standard that applies to all airports and screeners — public and private.
"The secret to success is local training and hiring. We're totally committed to local empowerment. We think it's critical that we decentralize the training, testing and hiring," he said.
Stone, who has only been on the job for four and a half months, acknowledged that much work still needs to be done, but he also said that a great deal of progress has been made since Sept. 11.
"Ninety-two percent of the traveling public says TSA meets or exceeds its expectations," Stone said. The rising numbers of Americans traveling by air "we believe is directly correlated to public confidence in our security."
Lawmakers are using the testimony to write the guidelines expanding the use of private security screeners. House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (search), R-Fla., said he is so concerned about the situation that he is planning to hold an emergency meeting in the coming days with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other key officials to discuss ways to tighten airport security.
Threatening to subpoena Ridge and the others if necessary, Mica said, "We have a system that doesn't work."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were unsparing in their criticisms. In addition to oft-repeated criticisms about TSA's excessive bureaucracy, committee members also voiced complaints about waits at security lines of up to four hours, gaps in screening for airport employees and lack of an appeals process for passengers who are scrutinized by security personnel.
"The inadequacies and loopholes in the system are phenomenal," said ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio (search) of Oregon.
Despite these issues, some Democrats said they did not believe a return to private security is the answer.
These problems do not "mean we should have a massive, wrenching transition back to private security," DeFazio said.
Calling public safety a basic responsibility of government, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said, "We must not revisit the days [when we offered] minimum wages with no benefits for those on the frontlines of our security system yielding disastrous results."
For others, though, these problems seemed to offer little choice.
"If I didn't know better, I'd almost think that TSA is complicit so that we don't succeed, so that we have to go to private security," said Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
When airport screeners were federalized two and a half years ago, House Republicans were wary about expanding the reach of the federal government, and some of those same voices repeated calls to take the screening jobs off the public rolls.
Referring to the TSA-administered system as "Soviet-style," Mica hailed the airports operating under the pilot program, saying they "have been the source of many of the innovations in airport security.
"As long as the highest level standards are met and exceeded, how that is achieved should be determined by those closest" to operations on the ground, he said.