WASHINGTON – Members of a House panel threatened Tuesday to privatize more airport screening unless the Transportation Security Administration improves its treatment of travelers.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he plans legislation "one way or the other" to privatize all federal screeners within two years. He would leave TSA in charge of gathering intelligence, setting standards and running audits.
"If you come to Orlando airport or Sanford airport, what is going on is almost criminal to American citizens, the way they are treated," said Mica, head of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations, which held a hearing on private screeners. "This is the mess we've created."
The criticism came the same day Congress began debating a spending bill that would cut $225 million from TSA and cap the number of screeners at 46,000.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, said 48,000 workers are categorized as screeners.
But Kelly Hoggan, TSA's assistant administrator for security operations, said some of those workers categorized as screeners are actually managers and supervisors, so it isn't immediately clear how the cap will affect checkpoints.
Hoggan assured Connolly that the agency would perform its job with the funding provided.
TSA performance remained a concern for lawmakers. Connolly said it was inexcusable for TSA screeners to bark 20 orders at him and other travelers during his last trip over the weekend – back up, put your hands up, take your shoes off – without saying please. He urged the agency to become more polite or risk legislation.
"When we mistreat them by barking orders at them as if they are cattle, not people, we actually diminish spirit of cooperation," Connolly said. "I've had it, and I think a lot of the public has had it. There is no excuse for it."
Screening jobs are tough because the staffers must be constantly alert for contraband while still providing customer service, Hoggan said.
The Nov. 1 shooting death of TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez at a checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport illustrates the perils involved with the job.
New hires receive 80 hours of training, followed by on-the-job training of 40 hours, plus more training for specific equipment, Hoggan said. In addition, the agency provides integrity and leadership training for supervisors, he said.
"It's a difficult job," Hoggan said. "Customer service is part of the training."
The hearing occurred two years after Congress approved legislation to speed up airport applications for private screening.
TSA's Screening Partnership Program now has 14 airports with private contractors as 1,849 screeners, which federal officials oversee. The largest participating airportsare in San Francisco and Kansas City, but half are small with less than 10,000 passengers per year.
Another six airports have been approved to participate, but are awaiting contract awards. Mica was upset that Orlando Sanford International Airport, which was approved to take part, is still waiting for contract approval after two years.
"It's a slow roll," Mica said.
TSA has streamlined the application process, with a goal to move within one year from application to contract award, Hoggan said. The agency held a meeting with 100 security contractors Jan. 10 to describe the private screening program, he said.
"As noted at the outset, we strive to maximize security not only by keeping ahead of current threats identified by intelligence, but by maintaining security systems that focus our resources on areas where they will yield the optimal benefit," Hoggan said.