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LAX security screeners targeted by GOP lawmaker

June 3, 2011 |  8:36 pm

Los Angeles International Airport has become the poster child of a Republican congressman's drive to increase the use of privately employed airport screeners.

A study released Friday by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, asserts that government-employed screeners at LAX cost taxpayers nearly $39 million more per year than privately employed screeners working under federal supervision at San Francisco International Airport.

"TSA has become a bloated bureaucracy that is too focused on managing its personnel and protecting its turf," Mica said. He used the study prepared by his staff to advance his argument that increased use of privately employed screeners would save the government money in an era of high budget deficits.

But Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands of TSA screeners, said Mica’s report was "partisan."

"Independent reviews such as those done by the Government Accountability Office show TSA officers are more cost effective as well as provide better security and we agree,’’ she said in a statement.

"I believe the American traveling public would be loathe to return to the days less than a decade ago when low-paid, ill-trained employees of private contractors handled air passenger screening duties."

Congress, in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, passed an aviation security bill that put federal workers in charge of screening passengers at airports, citing security lapses by private contractors.  But Mica complained that the federal screening force has grown to nearly 50,000.

Some airports, including San Francisco's, have been allowed to use private screeners under federal supervision. According to Mica's report, San Francisco’s private screeners processed 65% more passengers per screener than their federal counterparts at LAX.

One reason for the higher cost at LAX was its higher turnover of screeners, increasing recruiting and training costs. Mica's report did not compare the screeners' performances in spotting security risks.

Nicholas Kimball, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, said other studies show that private screening contracts cost taxpayers more on average.

He added that TSA administrator John Pistole's primary consideration is security.

"It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network," he said. "TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our front-line 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."

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

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