Florida airport gets OK to boot TSA, privatize security screening
SANFORD, Fla.—The Transportation Security Administration on Monday approved Orlando-Sanford International Airport's request to hire a private company to provide passenger and baggage security screening services instead of using TSA personnel. It's the first airport to receive such approval since a new law enacted in February made it harder for the TSA to deny such requests.
Assuming a suitable private security company can be found through a federal procurement process, the announcement means the Orlando-Sanford International Airport—not to be confused with the larger, nearby Orlando International Airport—will join the TSA's Screening Partnership Program (SPP), which allows airports to opt for private security screening over TSA-managed screening.
The next step will be the TSA's issuance of a Request for Proposal. Final approval for participation in the SPP will be contingent upon the approval of a proposal that “does not compromise security or detrimentally affect the cost efficiency or the effectiveness of the screening of passengers or property at the airport," according to a statement from the TSA.
In the short term, nothing will change at the airport. The RFP process could take nine months to a year, which means it could be two years before a private company takes over security at the airport, according to Larry Dale, CEO of the Sanford Airport Authority, which operates the Orlando-Sanford International Airport. "So this is just another step down the road," Dale told Security Director News.
And it's been a long road in the airport's quest to boot the TSA in favor of a private security company. Two years ago, the TSA rejected the airport's application to join the SPP, claiming the airport could not prove privatization would provide any cost savings or benefit to security.
What forced the TSA to reverse its previous decision is a new federal law, the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The law makes it easier for airports to join the program by shifting the burden of proof from the airport to the TSA, which now has to prove that privatization would be detrimental to security. "Which they can't because five of them have been doing it for 11 years," Dale said, referring to the original five airports that piloted the SPP between 2002 and 2004: San Francisco International, Kansas City International, Greater Rochester International, Jackson Hole, and Tupelo Regional. In addition to the five pilot airports, the SPP includes 11 other airports that joined between 2005 and 2010. The TSA did approve the small West Yellowstone Airport's request to join the SPP earlier this year, before the new law was passed, but has not yet completed the RFP process.
In January 2011, TSA Administrator John Pistole said he would no longer expand the SPP. "At the time, I did not see any clear and substantial advantage to expanding the program, though I remained committed to maintaining contractor screening where it then existed," Pistole said in testimony in February before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security. He said privatized screening had cost between 3 percent and 9 percent more at SPP-participating airports than if the TSA had operated the screening.
The 16 airports that participate in the SPP are proof that private security screening works, Dale said. He believes the TSA should step back to a regulator role and leave implementation to private enterprise, which can be more adaptable to each airport's particular environment. "It's proven to be a shoe that fits, so we're going to try it on," he said.
While the TSA handles the RFP process, selects the private company that will take over security screening at the airport, and pays for those contracted services, the Sanford Airport Authority will not sit out the action. The authority itself can be considered a private screening company in the RFP process, Dale said, a fact he said the TSA confirmed in a letter to the authority two years ago. "We probably won't bite off that whole apple, but we'll probably team up with a security company of reputable nature and bid on it ourselves," Dale said.
The airport authority's board of directors has identified a short list of three private security companies from which it will choose a partner, according to Dale: FirstLine Transportation Security, which currently provides private security screening at Kansas City International Airport; McNeill Security, which provides screening services at Greater Rochester International Airport; and Covenant Aviation Security, which provides screening services at San Francisco International Airport.
Having a hand in managing the security screening at the airport makes sense to Dale because the airport's police department already is responsible for security everywhere else at the site. "We're law enforcement here. TSA is not," said Dale, who is commander of the airport's police department. "We're already responsible for security here. We want to have more skin in the game."
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and sponsor of the new law that has paved the way for more airports to privatize security screening, heralded the TSA's decision as the beginning of the agency’s departure from the HR business and a chance to put a renewed focus on regulation and intelligence gathering. "I hope this opens a new era of reform for TSA operations, not only at Orlando-Sanford but across the nation," Mica told the Orlando Sentinel, adding that the TSA “needs to focus on going after terrorists—not little old ladies, veterans and children."
There are three airports with applications to join the SPP pending with the TSA, Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman, told SDN. As of June 11, the TSA had applications from Sacramento International, which applied in February, along with requests for reconsideration from Glacier Park International Airport and Bert Mooney Airport, both in Montana, which were previously denied, according to Koshetz.