TSA Illegally Blocking Airports from Opting for Private Screeners

When the FAA was re-authorized in 2012, legislation demanded that the TSA quit bottlenecking the process for airports to opt for private screeners, the way that some like San Francisco International have already done. But according to the June Airport Policy News, the TSA is playing new games with the certification process to avoid any airports opting out of TSA screeners.

Not a single new contract has been approved, and procurements that were underway have been halted with the intention of ‘starting the process over later.’ Orlando Sanford airport has an approved application allowing it to bring on private screeners, it just hasn’t been allowed to contract for them.

The TSA has added a new “cost efficiency target” for which if contracts don’t hit, they won’t be awarded. Basically the TSA says they won’t let airports have private screeners unless those private screeners are cheaper than TSA screeners. Which makes sense, except:

  • The TSA plays funny games with its own costs. As Airport Policy News reports,

    In its 2008 study (GAO-09-27R), the agency faulted TSA’s cost comparisons for omitting the cost of overlapping TSA administrative staff at SPP airports, and failing to include TSA costs for workers’ comp, general liability insurance, and some retirement costs. Not mentioned in this report, but relevant to accurate cost comparisons, TSA also does not include the cost of using its screener flying squad (the National Deployment Force) to fill in at TSA-screened airports.

  • The TSA requires private screeners to be paid just as much as government screeners, and don’t take private screeners’ greater efficiency into account in their comparisons. The Government Accountability Office found that despite having to pay private screeners government-level wages,

    the cost per screener at SFO was 5.3% less than TSA’s cost at LAX. While that may not sound like much, when combined with much higher productivity at SFO (16,113 passengers per screener at SFO vs. 9,765 at LAX, due mostly to a good mix of part-time and full-time screeners at SFO), the overall result would be 42.6% lower screening cost at LAX if the SFO contract model were applied there

Private screeners not only have to be paid the same amount as government screeners, private screening companies have to follow TSA standards and procedures at the checkpoint. So they’re not a huge leap forward for travelers, the way that precheck is (give up information to the government in order for them sometimes restoring your right to travel the way you used to be able to).

But in areas of cost – just as in screening procedure – it’s important to hold TSA’s feet to the fire so that the imperious agency doesn’t flout the law.

To be clear, perhaps my characterization of TSA flouting the intention of Congress as illegal may be strong. The Supreme Court gives tremendous latitude (‘Chevron deference’) to agencies. They’ve even just given agencies latitude to determine the scope of their powers when statutes are ambiguous (City of Arlington v. FCC). So I’m not suggesting that the TSA would necessarily be slapped down by a final arbiter of the law.

Rather they are acting as an impediment to the private screening program, even though 2012 legislation was specifically meant to overcome their intransigence.

None of which should be surprising from the agency staffed by a few bad apples who in no way undermine the hard work that thousands of men and women at the TSA do to keep us safe, day in and day out.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Honestly, based on ‘Team SFO’ at San Francisco I am not sure it matter whether the screens are TSA direct reports or outsourced. Both have nonsense policies and a contempt for their customers.

  2. So are those jackass manning the SFO international screening employed by TSA or private?

  3. Good Lord, Gary. Are you a lawyer now, too? I wouldn’t cite cases to support your arguments. You’ll get them wrong and it looks funny to people who are in the legal profession.

  4. @Mike Smith – (1) explain how I’ve gotten the analysis wrong? (2) as it happens I have worked with legal academics for the past 16 years, I’ve been acknowledged in law review articles. 😉

    The legal analysis here, though, only clarifies that the main argument of the post would NOT support a legal challenge, given the broad deference to agencies in the processes they develop to follow the laws given to them.

    Put another way, I was explaining why despite the suggestion I was making that the TSA was acting contrary to law, the Supreme Court’s interpretation would run CONTRARY to the argument I was making in the post. It was merely an attempt to qualify the post so that there was no misunderstanding, that I wasn’t making the broad sweeping point that some might otherwise take away from the post.

  5. @Sam they are private, but have to follow TSA rules and procedures as though they were employed by the TSA. And they aren’t allowed to be paid less either.

  6. SFO has probably the worst “clipped-hair-mean-looking” women at the security checkpoints. A bad taste for such a beautiful city. So much for private screeners

  7. Keep up the good fight Gary!!! I yearn for the day when Uber is allowed to flourish, and TSA is allowed to perish.

  8. I don’t understand the endless vitriol against the TSA. Whatever your issues with the TSA are, the private sector isn’t going to do a better job in this area. They never have, and never will. If you have proof otherwise, I’d like to see it.

  9. Chris and RG, the groping would continue under private screeners because the TSA still sets screening policy. The main reason to move to private screening is the combination of cost savings and accountability.

    Joe, just look up to read the proof, SFO which is private is capable of screening 40% more passengers than LAX given the same number of screeners. Factor in the ability to more flexibly use their staff due to no union and it does a much better job than the public sector.

  10. As someone who uses SFO regularly, I can attest that Team SFO is pretty horrible and certainly nothing that any frequent flyer should desire at his or her home airport. SFO lines are horrendous, the contract drones are just as stupid and arrogant as those found elsewhere, and the whole place needs a major makeover. IMO the 5% savings isn’t worth it. The key factor is not the # of passengers screened per drone (which doesn’t matter to any of us) but the amount of time it takes to get through the screening process, particularly for those (like myself) who opt out. On this SFO gets a big fail.

  11. So those gorillas at Team SFO are private sector and still act like they’re TSA jackass?
    This whole security theater is such a joke.

  12. @Mike Smith: As a lawyer who studied Admin Law, I see Gary’s analysis as spot-on and welcome it, even if he doesn’t use Bluebook citations…

  13. Let the gropings continue! Just kidding. omatravel, let the airlines be in charge of airline security. They can then compete on security, and people can choose how much groping and/or radiation they desire. For instance, similar to how Southwest offers free bags, Delta could offer extreeemely thorough security (for folks like Joe).

  14. @Boraxo has it right. SFO screeners are appalling. You know it’s bad when you find yourself preferring the screening process at Dulles (shudder).

  15. @Jack sadly you are right. IAD used to be the absolute worst right after 9/11, but the current setup is far more efficient than SFO, particularly for UA elites, and the drones are more professional (no shocker, given that they may have to process the people who cut their checks on the Hill)

    Kind of strange to focus on the certification issue, when there are so many other problems at the TSA which adversely and directly affect frequent travelers

  16. As a KC-based flyer, I greatly appreciate our private security screeners. Don’t let SFO give the entire private screener system a bad rap!

  17. So on the one hand you title this post “TSA illegally…” and on the other hand you state that the Supreme Court would likely not rule this illegal…

    Seems to me like this was just to get an anti-TSA headline… link-baiting etc.

  18. @AS I don’t accept that the law “is what the supreme court says it is” … something can be contrary to law even though it isn’t enforced as such

  19. While Team SFO does have to abide by the minimal level of procedure based on TSA regulations, Covenant Aviation Security (while I was under their employ) went above said regulations that made the team more efficient than their government employed counterparts. While we had to abide by the rules handed down by TSA, we did what we could to provide greater service. Having gone throught the fire storm in November ’02 and beyond (passengers were not too happy with restrictive flying), I can say that Team SFO handled the transition by far better than other TSA ran airports (Midway in Chicago was laughable, as was Salt Lake City).

  20. Based on the performance of the screeners at SFO, I am delighted that the TSA is preventing any more crappy private companies from screening our bags. The SFO screeners just about destroyed my camera case – they ripped through the contents, put everything back in a haphazard pile, didn’t get the latches closed, and lost one of the 2 straps I put around the outside in case they don’t get the latches shut. You would think they would take more care with obviously expensive equipment. Covenant sucks. I have never had this happen at ANY other airport, and I fly 250k per year with this case…

Comments are closed.