Report: Private Airport Screeners Better

A congressional investigation found airport screeners employed by private companies do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners, according to a House member who has seen the classified report.

The Government Accountability Office (search) found statistically significant evidence that passenger screeners, who work at five airports under a pilot program, perform better than their federal counterparts at some 450 airports, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said on Tuesday.

"You get a statistically significant improvement if you go to federal supervision with private screening companies," Mica said.

In a separate report issued Tuesday, the inspector general for the Homeland Security Department (search) faulted the Transportation Security Administration (search) for allowing lavish spending on a $19 million crisis management center, including about $500,000 to acquire artwork, silk plants and other decorative and miscellaneous items.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress ordered every commercial airport but five to switch from privately employed screeners to a government work force.

The five exceptions — in San Francisco; Tupelo, Miss.; Rochester, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. — all have private workers supervised by Transportation Security Administration officials.

Mica wants to see that system at all U.S. airports.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (search), a senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, opposes private screeners.

DeFazio, who has seen the classified GAO report, said the difference between the private and government screeners was statistically significant but still slight.

"Neither number is adequate or reassuring to me and the difference is not very large," DeFazio said.

TSA screeners' ability to find guns, weapons and other dangerous items since the Sept. 11 attacks has been an ongoing concern.

The Homeland Security Department's acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, issued a separate report on Tuesday that said the screeners' performance hadn't improved since the previous audit — which indicated that screeners hadn't improved since before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In both inspector general audits, undercover agents tried to smuggle fake weapons and bombs past screeners.

Though the screeners were diligent and responsible, Skinner said, "the lack of improvement since our last audit indicates that significant improvement in performance may not be possible without greater use of new technology."

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield Jr. said the TSA has deployed new baggage screening technology at three airports and plans to spend $30 million to install the new machines at 100 more.

The TSA has also installed walk-through bomb detection machines at airports in 15 cities and plans to install them at the 40 busiest airports.

Finally, the agency expects to start testing backscatter machines, which can find plastic weapons and improvised bombs, sometime later this year, Hatfield said.

Congress allowed airports to opt out of the federal system and hire federal screeners as of Nov. 19. Only one airport in Elko, Nev., has asked to use private screeners.

Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, said airports are interested in using private screeners, but there are still questions about liability if there's a terrorist attack.

Some airports would like to form subsidiaries to run the screening operations, van Beek said, but are prohibited by state law.

There's also a lack of flexibility, he said. "You basically have to ask, 'Can I do it this way, can I do it that way?"'

"Unfortunately, a program that was supposed to be creative and innovative has turned into a 'Mother May I' system," van Beek said.

The Homeland Security inspector general also reported that the project manager and facility operating officer improperly purchased decorative and miscellaneous items for its new crisis management center in Herndon, Va. They kept the nature of the purchases hidden by charging them to the construction contract as "equipment and tools," according to the report.

The project spent $252,392 on artwork, $29,032 on art consultants, $30,085 on silk plants and $13,861 on lamps and other equipment, the report said. The vendor added a 20 percent markup, a credit for future purchases and overpayments that totaled more than $174,000.

The project manager, facilities operation officer and an employee of the Transportation Security Operations Center also used the government purchase card to buy furniture and personal items, including loveseats, armoires, leather briefcases and coffee pots, the report said.

While the center was being built, the project manager made decisions "that appear wasteful," the report said. It cited offices and workspaces larger than standards permitted; televisions with cable service in 45 of 55 offices; seven kitchens with appliances that included dishwashers, icemakers and $3,000 refrigerators; and a 4,200-square-foot fitness center with a towel laundry service for 79 federal employees.

"Our recommendations emphasize the need for TSA to adhere to disciplined decision-making processes to ensure that projects are implemented at acceptable costs and that procurement practices are consistent with statutes, regulations and rules," the report said.