(Updates with Senate vote in second paragraph.)
Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Companies wanting to take over passenger screening at U.S. airports from the Transportation Security Administration will have an easier time getting contracts under Senate legislation.
The U.S. agency must allow airports to switch to private companies for screeners unless it can show the move wouldn’t be cost-effective and would be detrimental to security, according to the legislation, which the Senate cleared today for President Barack Obama’s signature. The House approved the measure Feb. 3.
“They’ve been trying to force the door open for several years,” Jeff Price, a Denver-based consultant who has written a textbook on aviation security, said of U.S. lawmakers. “It reverses the burden of proof. It is definitely trying to checkmate the TSA.”
TSA Administrator John Pistole raised the ire of House transportation committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, last year by freezing the number of airports using non-government screeners. Mica, who proposed the House version of the FAA bill, has said the TSA should get out of passenger screening to focus on intelligence gathering and security oversight.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airlines were responsible for aviation security and hired security companies to operate checkpoints.
The law that created the TSA put it in charge of security while requiring five airports to have private screeners under a two-year pilot program. The number later grew to 16. Pistole halted new participation in January 2011.
Pistole had said he wouldn’t allow more airports to convert to private screeners unless there was a “clear and substantial advantage to the federal government,” said Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman.
The four-year Federal Aviation Administration blueprint approved by the House Feb. 3 and set for a Senate vote today will force TSA to reconsider applications it rejected. One of those is from the Orlando Sanford International Airport, in Mica’s congressional district.
“The business cases submitted by these airports failed to demonstrate an operational, security, or cost advantage that provides a clear and substantial benefit,” Soule said.
Closely held Covenant Aviation Security LLC has won at least $692 million in contracts since 2002, more than any other private-screening company, according to a Bloomberg review of TSA contracts.
Covenant maintains offices in Casselberry, Florida, which is in Mica’s district, and provides screening at San Francisco International Airport, the largest U.S. airport with private security.
Covenant would be interested in bidding on the Orlando airport contract if TSA approves the airport for private screeners, Janine Morris, a company spokeswoman, said by telephone.
The biggest change will be that the TSA will have a deadline to act on airport requests, Morris said.
“They will have to provide an explanation,” she said. “That has not been done in the past.”
The TSA has already reconsidered and approved an application at Yellowstone Airport in Montana, Soule said. The airport operates four months a year, and private screeners will allow the TSA to reassign government resources to other airports, he said.
Pistole is scheduled to appear at a House Homeland Security subcommittee tomorrow in a hearing entitled, “Why is a Job- Creating, Public-Private Partnership Meeting Resistance at TSA?”
In June, the American Federation of Government Employees won the right to bargain for the TSA’s 44,000 screeners. Emily Ryan, a union spokeswoman, declined to comment on the FAA legislation.
The existing market for private screeners is about $144 million a year, compared with $2.9 billion a year spent on TSA screeners. The agency spent $925 million on screener contracts through 2011.
Private-screeing companies have come and gone in the years since TSA was created, but most haven’t stuck around because the agency made it known it wasn’t interested, said Price, the Denver consultant. A new batch of startups is likely, he said.
Seventy-four companies registered last year when the TSA sought bids for contracts at six airports.
“You’ll see companies make themselves known,” Price said. “They’ll make sure every airport operator knows the rules have changed.”
--Editors: Bernard Kohn, Steve Walsh
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