MANATEE -- Two Transportation Security Administration decisions could mean significant changes to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport with one so important the airport is willing to volunteer testimony in federal court.
The TSA decided in April it would no longer staff exit lanes as of Jan. 1, forcing the airports to provide the security. A judge granted a stay to delay until Feb. 1, and SRQ joined 12 airports in a lawsuit to volunteer testimony in a case expected to be filed with the Federal Court of Appeals.
TSA does not provide agents at the exit lane after the final departure and when that policy was implemented, SRQ spent about $60,000 to install a mechanical door with security alarms and cameras at the exit ramp, said Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, president and chief executive officer of SRQ. The airport is unsure if the door would comply with TSA's new mandate, but likely it would be required to spend money to staff the gate 24/7 -- still, the airport officials believe the TSA is responsible for guarding the exit.
The TSA said it would save $88 million a year through the move, while trade organization American Association of Airport Executives estimates it will cost $200 million annually for airports across the country to fund the change.
TSA has not fully vetted the decision through cost analysis and impact, Piccolo said. The key argument is that the airport believes TSA
did not follow proper procedure for changes in federal rules, he said.
"We don't believe that TSA has this unilateral right to do this," Piccolo said.
If the airport is selected to testify, it would contribute up to $10,000 in legal fees with the remaining paid by the American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International, Piccolo said.
"This is a percolating issue and will cost airports countrywide millions of dollars to take this over," Piccolo said.
Boston law firm Anderson & Kreiger is leading the suit with aviation lawyer Scott Lewis, said C. Dan Bailey Jr., general counsel for SRQ. Airports are seeking a stay beyond Feb.1, he said.
Bailey said airports are also arguing TSA is violating a law created by Congress by going beyond its powers.
Each airport in the suit, including SRQ, will respond with cost estimates, training requirements and other impacts that should have been collected by TSA, Bailey said.
Agents are on hand not only to keep people from wandering into the gates, but also are used to verify credentials of federal marshals and other armed guards, Piccolo said. Likely a system would have to be created to allow those agents to pass through the regular checkpoint, he said.
Chairman Jack Rynerson, who was elected chairman Monday, also questioned whether SRQ should continue with its application to privatize security at the airport, but the authority ultimately decided to stay the course.
"If we're not going to save any money, it's not going to make any sense to do it," Rynerson said. The board unanimously approved staying with the program for now, but may revisit the issue at its Jan. 27 meeting.
After hearing concerns from TSA union employees in August, Rynerson wanted to have another look at the Screening Partnership Program. Instead of removing layers of government regulation, the program would add a layer because it would have to report any concerns to the TSA if the airport had a problem with the security company, he said.
A TSA report said the contracts could cost 3 percent to 9 percent more than government workers while the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the TSA needs to develop a regular monitoring process of private versus federal screener performance.
TSA approved the airport's application in June for the Screening Partnership Program. It could take years before the airport finds out if it will become a part of the program. The program would replace TSA agents with a private security firm. TSA agents employed at SRQ would have first crack at applying for the jobs, Piccolo said, but seniority would not be retained with the new employer. However, the airport might have few veteran agents by the time the program starts.
"My understanding is we're seeing a number of existing TSA employees here at SRQ transfer to other stations as they become available," Piccolo said.
Piccolo also said the airports he talked to did not have any major problems with the program.
Authority board member Carlos Beruff said he wanted to continue with the application process because he did not believe in reversing decisions from previous boards and believed it helped eliminate control from the federal government.
"It concerns me after I leave that a decision we made as a collective board are unwound by the next board," Beruff said.
If the authority becomes part of the program, the TSA will tell SRQ whether it can participate after the first five-year term, Piccolo explained.
"We don't get a say whether we renew or not," Piccolo said.
Depending on the bidding process, it could be much more difficult for the airport to withdraw its application, he said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.