TSA OKs SRQ airport application to use private screeners

Sarasota airport faces lengthy process for contractors to come on board

cschelle@bradenton.comJune 5, 2013 

SARASOTA -- The person who will pat passengers down at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport security lines could be a private contractor, rather than a government employees, if the federal government gives the OK.

The Transportation Security Administration announced Tuesday that it approved the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority's application for SRQ airport to use private contractor security screeners instead of TSA agents, but it's far from being final.

The Screening Partnership Program was developed as a pilot program in 2001 as part of the Aviation Transportation Security Act that allowed private contractors to perform TSA screening operations at five airports.

"Regardless of whether the private screeners or federal screeners are used, the process and rules are exactly the same," said airport president and chief executive officer Frederick "Rick" Piccolo.

SRQ is the only airport in the nation to receive application approval this year. Sixteen airports in the United States. participate in the program, including Key West International. Six airports, including Orlando-Sanford International Airport, had applications approved in 2012, and one airport in Sacramento International withdrew its application, according to the TSA.

The program was frozen in 2011 when the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the TSA should provide more guidance to private contractors. The GAO also had questions about which airports would qualify, how the private contractors performance would be monitored compared with TSA agents, whether the private contractors would compromise security and if contractors would be substantially more expensive than TSA agents.

The latest round of applications are part of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The airport authority decided to apply because of a philosophical decision regarding the TSA as a growing federal agency, Piccolo said, and hoped that private contractors could provide better customer service.

"I've talked to other airport directors that had private screenings and they're all happy with the level of service and customer service, how they treat their customers and their disposition," he said. "We have not experienced a lot of problems here with federal screeners. This was more of a philosophical issue than a customer service issue that existed."

The process to put private screeners in place is a long one, and there are no guarantees that the private screeners will be hired, Piccolo said.

The next step is for the TSA to issue a request for proposal for companies to provide the security services, according to the TSA.

"An airport only participates in the SPP (screening partnership program) when a contract is awarded," according to a TSA spokesman. "There will be no immediate change to operations or to the federal work force at the airport."

Orlando-Sanford International Airport was accepted into the program in 2012, but the TSA has yet to issue the RFP, Piccolo said. The TSA also has to figure out whether the private screeners would save the federal government money, too.

"The cost cannot exceed what they use now," Piccolo said. "Not sure how the contractors would address whether there would be more agents or less agents."

Since 2004, all commercial airports are eligible to apply to the screening program, according to the TSA.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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