Airports that want to replace government security screeners with privately employed workers can do so by early next summer, the Bush administration told Congress on Thursday.

Thomas Blank, assistant administrator at the Transportation Security Administration (search), told the Senate aviation subcommittee that airports will have three options: remain in the federal system, use a private contractor to hire and train screeners, or run the screening themselves. They can apply for a change in November.

Airport groups estimate between 20 and 100 of the 445 commercial airports under TSA supervision will choose to opt out of the current system. Those that do will be able to leave the federal system starting early next summer, Black said, though their security systems still will be overseen by the TSA.

Smaller airports are likely to be most interested in running their own screening operations because it would be simpler. They would avoid red tape from Washington while they could do their own hiring and training.

Blank said the TSA is considering allowing airports that hire their own screeners to use them for tasks unrelated to security during off-peak hours. That would solve a problem for airports that have busy morning and evening rush hours but not much for screeners to do in between.

Subcommittee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., (search) said the TSA had done a good job, but that he thinks private companies or small airports would be more efficient and could do the job more cheaply.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J (search)., disagreed, saying private companies will have to give screeners the same pay and benefits they receive as federal employees. "If they have to make a profit, it's going to cost more," Lautenberg said.

Some airport managers think private companies could do a better job than TSA, which they perceive as unresponsive to local needs. Others think security should remain a federal responsibility because private companies will likely put profit before the public interest.

Congress created the TSA after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ordered the agency to replace the privately employed screeners with a better-paid, better-trained federal work force. More than 50,000 screeners were hired in less than a year, though that number has been trimmed to about 45,000.

Congress also ordered five commercial airports to use privately employed screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards to serve as a comparison to the federal employees. Those airports are in San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.

A study showed there was no difference between the performance or cost of federal and contract screeners, though the study's authors said the sample was too small to draw meaningful conclusions.