TSA Screening Partnership Program is Good, But Certainly Not Perfect

Mark VanLoh

Here we go again.

In March, suicide bombers attacked the departures hall at Brussels Airport, killing 16 people. In June, dozens were killed when Istanbul Ataturk Airport came under siege. Closer to home, Dallas Love Field suffered a single fatality this June, when city police shot a man who confronted them after throwing rocks at his ex-girlfriend's car as passengers streamed out of the baggage claim area. 

Not surprisingly, airport security is once more at the front of most American travelers' minds-ahead of ticket cost, record-breaking profits for airlines and even the lines at Starbucks. 


Mark VanLoh, A.A.E., was director of the Kansas City Aviation Department from May 2004 to June 2016. Before that, he served in various executive positions with the Chattanooga Airport Authority, Cleveland Airports Commission, Toledo Port Authority and Rockford Airport Authority. 

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent creation of TSA, the safety and security of passengers was the new mantra coming from Washington. Forward thinking at the time even created a program that allowed five airports to develop and use a privatized security screening program. Kansas City International (MCI), where I served as director for 12 years, was one of those five airports. 

Since that time, security concerns in the United States have ebbed and surged like the stock market and more than 20 U.S. airports now use private screeners. Militarizing passenger screening seemed like the right response to the heightened security concerns that followed the 9/11 attacks. Of course, some of the "antis" in political office voice concern about returning to private companies screening passengers. They fret about another terrorist event occurring because of a lapse by private screeners. However, private screeners followed all procedures and policies dictated by the federal government on 9/11. 

I have to applaud the folks at TSA for keeping us safe. They have had a few miscues (behavior detection officers and millimeter wave machines some call "see me naked devices"), but the PreCheck program is near brilliant. It's an idea that was no doubt borrowed from the airline industry, which provides special treatment to frequent fliers. That's right, a good idea from private industry-much the same as private screening providers. 

I certainly trust the leadership at Homeland Security to provide airports with intel, procedures and policies; but as any airport director will tell you, the majority of our time in the office is spent on personnel issues. Imagine a workforce of 70,000 employees-or whatever Congress has set the number at this week. I can't believe that someone in a cubicle in D.C. is actually reviewing all of those performance audits, termination requests, random drug tests, family/medical leave cases, etc. 

Airports are so unique that one size does not fit all, yet flexibility for screening operations at individual airports is non-existent. We recently observed this firsthand at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Atlanta International. Changes only occurred there after public outcry about long wait times and airport officials threatened to pursue privatized screening. 

While I obviously tout the screening partnership program, I also recognize that it should be improved:
• TSA needs to be more flexible in its supervision to better foster innovation. Imagine Google or Apple working on their next groundbreaking tech device while being constantly redirected by Washington.
• TSA should rescind system-wide staffing caps based on what is being used elsewhere in the federal workforce. Airports are unique and have different requirements. Consider, for example, the unusual terminal layout at MCI!
• Private companies should be able to vary compensation and benefits for their employees instead of being tied to federally mandated salaries that may work in the Midwest but not California or New York.
• Airport operators should help select their private screening companies. As director at MCI, I was never involved with the process or even informed of the final decision until the new operator contacted us for badging requirements!
• Cost should not be the primary selection factor for private screening companies, as it currently is. This is a dangerous precedent that could return us to the poorly performing system that existed pre-9/11. Selection should be based largely on technical capabilities and performance. 

Unfortunately, it appears that air travel will remain a preferred target for terrorists. We have to involve our brightest and most successful organizations to keep us safe and secure. I'm confident that private industry can be part of the solution to many of the technical issues faced by TSA, an understaffed and overworked federal department.  

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