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Orlando Considers Hiring Private Airport Screeners

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Over 35 million passengers travel through Orlando International Airport every year. Photo: Renata Sago, WMFE.

Photo: Renata Sago, WMFE.

It’s a busy day at Orlando International Airport.

Everyone from businessmen and retirees to children in Mickey Mouse hats pile into a long line at the security checkpoint.

Donald Johnston and Kristin Chuli are headed back to Toronto, Canada after a week-long Caribbean cruise. They’re tanned and stressed.

“It’s like moving through a sticky substance getting through security here. It’s harder,” Johnston says. “You feel like if you say any sort of wrong word, you’re going to get thrown into a little back room and never get to go home ever again,” Chuli adds.

Johnston, Chuli, and 35 million other travelers pass through Orlando International every year. The airport authority has 900 TSA agents and two hopes: to keep travelers safe and satisfied.

Dean Asher, with the airport authority, says that second wish hasn’t worked out.

“People come in here and they have to wait in line for an hour and they get real unhappy and when they make a comment, they get a negative comment from the agent when they see them that ‘Why are the lines long?’ and they say ‘That’s the way it is,'” he says.

For many of the airports that have switched to private screeners, customer service has been a big complaint. Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota dropped TSA a decade ago.

Airport director Dan Lettelier says, “In five or six years, I don’t know that I’ve ever received a complaint for rude treatment.”

He says they wanted more control over operations. But even with private screeners, TSA still oversees and trains them — and pays the contractors.

Lettelier believes staffing is what makes his lines shorter, and travelers happier. He brings in part-timers for peak periods — something the TSA rarely does.

“If you need 20 people in the morning, you’ve got 20 people all day long–whether you really need it or not,” he says.

Florida Congressman John Mica calls that bureaucratic—and wasteful. He helped create the agency shortly after the September 2-thousand-1 terrorist attacks.

Now, he wants to dismantle it.

“I refer to TSA as my bastard child, and it’s gotten out of hand and I’m just trying to reign it in,” he chuckles.

Mica wants to go back to private screeners at all 450 of the nation’s commercial airports. He believes that would free up the TSA’s over $7 billion budget so it could focus on tracking threats.

“They’re not law enforcement-sworn officers. They’re baggage screeners,” he adds.

Mica’s not alone in his frustration. Security expert Bruce Schneier spends a lot of time on planes. Like Mica, he wants the TSA to focus on the bigger picture, which is preventing attacks. But privatizing screeners, he says, is not the answer.

“What you’re going to get is airport security designed to move people through quickly, which is the opposite of security,” he says.

Schneier would rather see the TSA stay in charge of screening and just do a better job training its agents.

Back at Orlando International Airport, agents in blue shirts direct traffic in the long security line, while traveler Don Johnston stands, puzzled.

“It’s a dance that I don’t know the footsteps to,” he comments. 

Orlando airport officials say they’ll make their decision in May on whether to privatize screeners.

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About Renata Sago

Renata Sago