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TSA Nixes Contractor Screening Program

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the growing trend of airports hiring private security contractors to perform passenger screenings. Well, it’s safe to say that trend has ended.

TSA chief John Pistole put out a brief statement saying he will end the private screener program. Here’s his explanation:

“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.”

Perhaps there’s no security advantage for the TSA, but ask any of the airports who contracted with these private companies, or talk to the travelers who have been screened by contractors, and you may get a very different answer. Airport operators that use private screeners say the nature of the relationship means contractors are more responsive to their requests and concerns, and are more motivated to provide a positive customer experience. After all, contractors can be hired and fired, so there’s an incentive to go above and beyond just screening and security. With the TSA, the relationship is much different.

From a security standpoint, there shouldn’t be any disadvantage to using private contractors. Contractors follow TSA policy, and are overseen by the TSA’s Private Screening Partner Program. Private screeners are essentially the TSA with a different face.

It’s hard to know, then, why Pistole decided to spike the program. Perhaps he feared that more airports would turn to private screeners, thus creating a deeply fragmented and inconsistent security force. Maybe he felt the private screeners were an impediment to intelligence gathering and sharing. Whatever the reason, it’s a frustrating choice, because private screeners gave passengers and airports an appealing alternative to the TSA’s brand of customer service, which, needless to say, many people find sorely lacking.

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