Airport decision on private security will take months

Airport decision on private security will take months

By Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel

6:46 PM EST, December 8, 2010

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority will take a few more months to research the possibility of switching from federal to private air-passenger security screeners before deciding which would operate at Orlando International Airport.

The GOAA board got a look Wednesday at what it might take to have the U.S. Transportation Security Administration hire a private company to run metal detectors and X-ray body scanners and conduct passenger pat-downs instead of continuing to entrust the job to TSA employees.

But while GOAA Executive Director Phil Brown and chief security officer Brigitte Goersch explained that San Francisco, Kansas City and a handful of small airports were pleased with the TSA-overseen private screeners they use, the duo also told the board they could not yet prove any of the pros or cons claimed of private screeners..

“We need to get into the details and understand how a private screener can, one, improve customer satisfaction and customer service, and if there are efficiencies that can be achieved that potentially can reduce any costs to us,” Brown said. “We haven’t been able to validate that at this point. Don’t know if we can.

“But we believe, because of the import of this decision, we will have to take the additional time,” he continued. “So it will be a more thorough analysis, and we will come back to you with a recommendation.”

Brown said he would report back in several months. Should the board decide to switch to private screeners, it could take another 10 or 11 months before they could be in place, said Goersch, GOAA’s deputy executive director for administration, including security.

Goersch said airport officials in San Francisco and Kansas City told her they were happy with the private firms they use — Covenant Aviation Security of Winter Springs and First Line Transportation Security of Cleveland, respectively.

The board also heard two TSA representatives, TSA officer Donald Thomas and national federal employees union representative Aleli Samson, warn that a switch to a private company could mean tossing aside a federal service that works, and risking possible legal liability problems.

GOAA General Counsel Marcos Marchena assured the board that federal law should protect GOAA from any legal liability if private screeners in Orlando allowed a terrorist to pass and a disaster followed. But after Samson, a field organizer with the National Treasury Employees Union, countered that even the TSA acknowledges that the liability question ultimately will be decided in court, GOAA board member Jose Colon said he wanted more assurance.

Samson and Thomas also argued that if GOAA switched from federal screeners, Orlando risks losing trained, experienced inspectors, many of whom arrived when the agency was created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Thomas noted that the only potential or real terrorist incidents have occurred since were not the fault of TSA screeners.

Goersch said federal rules require the private companies to give hiring preference to current TSA officers, but job security was a big concern for Samson and Thomas.

“Most of us came as [transportation security officers] in 2001 with our hearts in our hands after 9/11…. to protect this airport,” Thomas said. “To hear that someone is trying to take our jobs away from us is very upsetting…We protect this airport with our hearts, every day.”

Scott Powers can be reached at spowers@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5441.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

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