The recent controversy of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) increased use of passenger pat downs and full body image scanning has re-ignited the rhetoric around privatization of TSA screeners at U.S. airports. This increased scrutiny comes at a time when many travelers, lawmakers, privacy advocates and the general public are already voicing  criticism of the TSA’s reliance on screening methods that many characterize as overly aggressive and a violation of privacy.

To complicate matters, U.S. representative John Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently sent a letter to a number of airport executives urging them to “opt-out” of the TSA-run passenger and baggage screening process. While the Congressman did not address the controversy surrounding the full body scanners or the pat down in his letter, he did voice a concern about the size of the TSA. More importantly, Congressman Mica indirectly argued for airports to remove TSA agents and hire private companies to screen airport passengers and baggage.

Prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, airlines and the FAA were responsible for security screening at all US airports. Federal law provides airports with the discretion to use private security screeners instead of TSA workers and in fact some larger airports -- including San Francisco’s International Airport -- and some smaller airports -- including Rochester, New York and Jackson Hole, Wyoming -- currently employ private sector security personnel.

While the Florida congressman and other proponents of private security screeners at airports may articulate seemingly valid reasons for promoting private security firms to screen passengers at airports, the reality is that private contractors do not represent a viable, long-term, practical solution for air travel security. In fact, under the law and in practice, private contractors would still be required to abide by all of the TSA-mandated security procedures currently in place.

Many of the airport executives advocating for the privatization of airport screening use customer service as the centerpiece of their argument. But upon further analysis, the argument in favor of replacing federally mandated TSA employees with private security firms is misguided and will ultimately result in a more burdensome, convoluted and frustrating experience for the passenger and it is for this reason that the current system needs improvement, not an overhaul.

Not surprisingly, the conversation about TSA privatization or “opt out” of federal run passenger and baggage screening usually focuses around four major concerns: customer service, customer complaint, wait time and staffing flexibility. While many airport executives believe private security screeners would alleviate some, if not all, of these concerns, this conclusion fails to account for the inevitabilities of today’s air travel, inevitabilities that will continue to persist regardless of who ultimately is responsible for passenger security screening. Nevertheless, with effective leadership from both local TSA personnel and airport operators, areas of obvious procedural concern can be appropriately addressed in an effort to help strike a positive balance between passenger safety and passenger satisfaction.


Customer Service 

At their very core, both airport owners and TSA personnel have an obligation to support commerce. Airport operators want passengers to have a positive experience when using their airports, a fact illustrated by the tremendous amount of money operators spend improving their facilities in an effort to improve the customer’s overall travel experience. According to a recent survey by the Airport Council International, commercial airports in the US spend an estimated $17.5 billion dollars a year on capital development, 46 percent for airport terminal improvements alone.

Likewise, the TSA has a critical mission to ensure commerce through the protection of the transportation system. Therefore, in order for the TSA to continue to do its job, both the airline and airport operator have to be fully invested in customer service. As a way to support this concept, TSA senior management, airport officials and airline representatives meet daily to review and discuss recent security concerns, as well as to collaborate on next steps and ways that airport security and passenger safety can be achieved while ensuring the process remains fluid and not too burdensome for the average traveler.


Customer Complaints

One of the principal arguments in favor of airport security privatization is premised on the increased number of customer complaints and the TSA’s inability to respond to them in an efficient and satisfactory manner.

While some airports have experienced an appreciable rise in customer service complaints -- an increase that in many ways has been exacerbated by the controversy surrounding the TSA’s latest security policies and measures -- it is both shortsighted and unfair to solely blame the TSA screeners for this problem. In fact, all of the security processes and procedures must be implemented in domestic airports in order to protect travelers, yet many privacy rights advocates are overly skeptical of what they perceive as too much governmental involvement in the process, including most notably the TSA’s continued use of full body scanners.

This problem only seems to be getting worse, especially as travelers’ post-September 11th psyche continues to inevitably heal with time, and people begin to forget -- or desensitized to -- the very security enhancements and policies implemented at airports throughout the world, the direct result of the many vulnerabilities those attacks exposed. Therefore, it is critical that the TSA continue to work towards perfecting a system whereby customer complaints are appropriately tracked, consistently reviewed, and where appropriate, implemented, at U.S. airports to ensure the continued safety of all travelers.

This process should ultimately culminate with the complainant receiving notice that his or her issue was addressed so as to reinforce the notion that their opinion remains a necessary component of airport security protocols. In the end, this arrangement is a win-win for both airport personnel and local TSA officials.


Passenger Wait Time

No one has better reason to be concerned about long lines at airports than the TSA. Long lines instantaneously lead to passenger frustration and uncooperativeness and, in many instances, ultimately results in the undermining of process in general. But it is critically important for the general public to understand that long lines and wait time are the result of a number of factors including, but not limited to, checkpoint configurations, divestiture of passengers, and an increase in the number of passengers, especially during peak travel times such as holidays. To help address this issue, since 2004, the TSA began publishing security checkpoint wait time information as a customer service initiative to assist travelers in planning for their flights. 

However, the TSA can and should do more, especially when it comes to operator asset allocation and technology improvements. If passengers are not being briefed properly, this can appreciably impact wait times and create unnecessary alerts from the magnetometer or X-ray machine. To help, the TSA needs to consider developing a “Trusted Traveler” program that will not only reduce wait times, but also improve the overall security screening process.


Staffing Flexibility

Staffing flexibility is a phenomenon that results from personnel not being properly allocated based on the demand of a particular checkpoint. In many instances, staffing flexibility results from either poor planning, where airline passenger traffic projection is not being properly communicated to local TSA management, or where the correct staffing levels are not in place based on demand. Without effective communication to travelers, it will remain a huge challenge for any entity -- albeit private or federal -- to apply the right staffing model at security checkpoints.

At one of the Category X (the largest, most critical)  airports, airport officials, airline personnel and the TSA remain in constant communication during peak travel times to discuss -- and where appropriate adjust -- staffing levels consistent with the demand. Also, prior to the TSA’s fiscal year, local TSA managers conduct similar meeting where they seek input from both airlines and the airport operator. This exercise helps to alleviate some of the staffing concerns other airports may experience. Since privatization does not come with unlimited funds, staffing flexibility will remain a challenge regardless of whether a given security checkpoint is staffed by private screeners, or the TSA.

 The issue of privatization will, in many ways, continue to remain at the forefront of the debate on how best to protect airline passengers at all of the 460 commercial airports in the United States.  Airport officials are presented with a multitude of challenges on a daily basis, none larger than trying to achieve the perfect marriage of effective security and customer service. Privatization of airport security screeners, though, will not solve all the problems that plague airport security officials. Instead, history has demonstrated that this is best achieved through an open and honest dialog between local TSA officials and airport management, a critical point to consider as we move forward and continue to face a multitude of challenges in this most dynamic of industries.