Rep. Mica Goes After TSA on Private Security Screeners

(Todd Zwillich -- Washington, D.C.) House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.) took a swing at the Obama Administration Friday for refusing to privatize security screening at more U.S. airports.

Mica released a lengthy report from his committee's investigators concluding that taxpayers could save $1 billion per year if 35 of the largest airports moved to private screening. That's a direct response to a January decision by Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole to reject privatization bids from five airports. Pistole also said he wouldn't expand the program further since privatized screening wasn't saving taxpayers any money.

The decision rankled Mica, who since the start of the year has railed on the TSA to slim down. "TSA has become a bloated bureaucracy that is too focused on managing its personnel and protecting its turf," he said. "This agency must get out of the human resources business."

Airports were legally allowed to opt out of TSA screening beginning in 2003. But private security contractors that took over had to meet federal screening and oversight standards in order to replace TSA screeners. Today 16 airports have opted for private security contractors. But Pistole got Mica's back up in January when he denied applications from five more. Republicans accused Pistole and Homeland Security officials of bowing to union pressure to suspend the program.

Officials have denied that union pressure was the reason, saying it is cost projections and security concerns that are keeping them from expanding the privatization program.

Friday's report compares screening costs at LAX, which uses TSA screeners, with the cost of private screening at San Francisco's SFO airport. It found that LAX screeners cost an average of $41,208 per year compared with $39,021 at SFO. Perhaps more to the point, it concludes that private screening at SFO costs $2.42 per passenger versus $4.22 per passenger at LAX.

"If we applied those findings to the nation's top 35 airports, we could save over $1 billion over five years," Mica told reporters at press conference on Capitol Hill Friday.

TSA hit back, saying via a spokesperson that it was "unclear" how they did their math on cost estimates. The agency's own estimates say private screening is more expensive. Most recently a GAO report in March of this year pegged private screening as 3 percent more expensive than government-run security.

TSA spokesperson Nicholas Kimball said security was a bigger factor than cost in Pistole's decision to back off private screening at airports.

"While cost is an important factor...Administrator Pistole’s primary consideration is security," Kimball wrote to Transportation Nation in an email. "It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network. TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security.  Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process," he wrote.

Kimball added that the agency believes private and TSA screeners provide "comparable" security.

That's not good enough for Mica. He said he intends to try and force TSA's hand on the issue. Part of his strategy was on display this week on the House floor. Mica narrowly succeeded in passing an amendment on a Homeland Security spending bill limiting by law the amount of money TSA can spend for screener personnel, salaries and benefits.