When checkpoint wait times at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport stretched to an hour or more during spring break, the agency that runs the airport decided to study whether privatizing security would result in a more efficient operation.
The short answer: Maybe a little, but maybe not.
The question took on more urgency in May, as painfully long lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints nationwide populated the 24-hour news cycle. The image of hundreds of travelers who missed their connections hunkered down on cots at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is a hard one to shake.
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., hailed privatization as the answer for long lines. “The solution couldn’t be any simpler: Let’s get the TSA out of the airport screening business altogether,” he wrote on a CNN blog.
But Jeff Hamiel, the former CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said at a board meeting this month, “It’s no silver bullet.” (Hamiel retired May 16.)
Hamiel recently traveled to San Francisco International Airport, the largest airport to date that has privatized security, to see how it all worked.
Airport security screening had historically been delegated to the airlines, but was nationalized after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Airports in Canada and Europe are privatized.
U.S. airports that want to privatize security now must apply through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, which was created in 2004. It’s not true privatization, though — contractors are chosen by the TSA through a bidding process, and the TSA controls the rules, funding and staffing.
“The airport is literally out of the equation,” Hamiel said.
Currently, 21 airports use private screeners, he said.
Officials in San Francisco told Hamiel there is some increased flexibility in terms of staffing, and customers are satisfied with service overall. But the airport hasn’t been immune to long wait times in recent months, either.
“The bottom line there is that it works well because people [the airport, airlines and contractor] choose to work together. We do that here, too.”
What about wait times in San Francisco, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, and other airports that have privatized? Hamiel said in San Francisco, the average wait for a traveler once they get in line is 40 minutes at peak times. (At MSP, the TSA says wait times at peak now “have not exceeded 30 minutes.”)
Asked last week whether the MAC would consider privatization, the commission’s chairman, Dan Boivin, said he wasn’t sure. “The reality is TSA has control over pretty much everything, so what’s the point of changing?” But he said the MAC will keep its options open.
In the meantime, Delta Air Lines said last week it is hiring 40 people to help the TSA in nonsecure roles at MSP. The MAC is contributing a few more staff members to Terminal 1 to direct travelers and serve as “bin runners,” ferrying security bins from the back of security lines to the front to speed screening.
Hamiel said it helps if travel “ambassadors” wear uniforms so confused travelers know whom to approach. Boivin joked that they should wear Helga braids and horns. Then everyone will know who’s who.