News: CJ Exclusives

Charlotte Airport Looks Into ‘Opting Out’ of TSA

Aviation director says private contractors would be cheaper, safer, and friendlier

In light of the recent uproar over the use of full-body scanners and “enhanced” pat-downs to screen air travelers, Charlotte/Douglas International Airport Aviation Director Jerry Orr said he’d like to fire the federal Transportation Security Administration replace it with private contractors.

Orr’s comments drew attention statewide, but so far, the management at Raleigh/Durham International Airport and Piedmont Triad International Airport are not following his lead.

After the 9/11 attacks, TSA took over security-screening services for all but 16 of the nation’s airports. The 16 that have opted out — including the main commercial airports in San Francisco, Kansas City, and Rochester, N.Y. — use private screening companies under the TSA’s watch.

“It’s been my opinion since Sept. 11 and before that the airport ought to be running the security process,” Orr said on WBT-AM’s Keith Larson Show Nov. 23.

If it were up to Orr, far fewer travelers would be subjected to x-ray machines and pat-downs.

“We spend an awful lot of time putting an awful lot of people through things that are obviously unnecessary,” he said. “The process from the very beginning has been to look for things — and typically the things they look for are yesterday’s threat … we need to be looking at people with intent.”

Orr said security guards should be allowed to evaluate passengers “based on a number of criteria” and determine which of them should be selected for extra screening.

“If you’re looking for a perpetrator, you must look for the perpetrator,” he said. “If you want to call that profiling, then sure. It certainly raises your opportunity for success.”

But Orr knows it is not up to him. He has learned that even if he can opt out of the TSA’s screening services, he can’t opt out of their x-ray and pat-down procedures.

Even so, he thinks there is room for improvement.

There are 464 TSA employees at the Charlotte/Douglas. Their only responsibilities are passenger and baggage screening.

“To put that in perspective,” Orr said, “we have about 350 [employees] to run the entire airport, which includes perimeter security, the airport police and all of the people who keep this airport running.”

In addition to being more efficient, Orr thinks a private company could provide friendlier customer service than the TSA.

“They’re not very flexible. They operate based on protocols, which means they do the same thing to everybody all the time,” he said.

Kevin Baker, executive director at GSO, said he has not considered opting out of TSA, but didn’t rule out the possibility.

“Sitting here right now, I don’t think we would go that route,” Baker said, but “of course you just never know what the future brings.”

GSO doesn’t have full-body scanners, but travelers who set off metal detectors are subjected to physical searches.

“It has not been that big of an issue for us so far — I’ve heard very few complaints — but I have to reserve judgment as to what it will be like in a month or a year,” Baker said.

He expects his airport will be equipped with x-ray machines “in the next year or so” and acknowledges that with the machines come more “enhanced” pat-downs, which may mean more complaints.

“Every incremental nuisance that is added to the air traveler reduces their likelihood to travel by air by some incremental amount,” Baker said.

A spokeswoman for RDU said none of the airport’s management had expressed any interest in opting out of TSA. X-ray machines already are in operation at RDU.

Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, said TSA has a built-in conflict of interest. The agency is both security regulator and security provider.

“It can’t be an objective overseer of its own screening workforce,” said Poole, who has written extensively on airport security and has advised the four previous presidential administrations on transportation policy.

Private contractors provide screening at all major airports in Europe and Canada, he said. The U.S. is the only country that uses its regulatory agency as a direct provider of screening services.

Poole said the TSA once hired a consulting firm to assess the performance of private screeners and then suppressed the report because it showed private screeners performed as well as or better than the TSA.

Orr put it this way: “They make the regulations, they carry out the activities, and then they judge their success.”

Poole said he will urge the 112th Congress “to seriously consider correcting the mistake they made back in 2001 in creating this conflict.”

Allowing airports to opt of out of the TSA may not end “the demeaning and degrading harassment of passengers that’s going on now,” Poole added, because private companies have “very little wiggle room” and are forced to operate “very much like the TSA.”

But, he said, it would be a step in the right direction “if we had more airports opting out and started moving toward a situation where the TSA didn’t have a role in providing screening at all.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.