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No more TSA screeners? Airports again allowed to apply to opt out

The Transportation Security Administration has revised the application process for a program that allows airports to opt out of the federal screening program and instead apply to have private companies in charge of the security checkpoint.

But a stipulation in the new application guidelines announced earlier this month is raising some concern.

As part of the Screening Partnership Program, private companies under federal oversight currently staff the checkpoints at San Francisco International, Kansas City International, Greater Rochester International and 13 other airports around the country.

But in January of this year, TSA administrator John Pistole put the program on hold, effectively denying the applications of six airports seeking to join, stating that the agency had not seen “clear or substantial advantage" to expanding the program.  

Since then, "TSA has developed a new ... application process that provides an opportunity for airport directors and managers to discuss what they see as the potential advantages that private screening would provide at their airports," the agency said in a statement.

But wording in the revised application specifically asks airports to explain how private screening would provide “a clear and substantial advantage to TSA's security operations.”

What TSA views as an "opportunity" is being viewed as a potential hurdle by others.

“That stipulation is not contained in the legislation mandating the creation of the program,” said Christopher Bidwell, vice president, Security and Facilitation for Airports Council International — North America (ACI-NA), which represents the nation’s airports. “And TSA has yet to publish the new standards that identify the criteria.”

For its part, TSA maintains that while the mandating legislation allows airports to request participation in the Screening Partnership Program, it’s ultimately up to the TSA to decide how to implement that program. And, “As Mr. Pistole announced, he will not expand the program unless there is a clear advantage to do so,” said TSA spokesperson Carrie Harmon. 

Six airports have been invited to re-apply for the program, including: Glacier Park International Airport, Missoula International Airport, Yellowstone Airport and Bert Mooney Airport in Montana; Springfield-Branson Airport in Missouri; and Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida.

Additional airports may apply for the program as well. 

“I don’t know how to make a business case for the TSA when we don’t have access to information the TSA would have when making a contract with a successful bidders,” said Cindi Martin, director of Glacier International Airport. “It’s an impossibility.”

Rather than start over, Martin is asking TSA to allow her airport to amend the application previously filed. Other airports are doing the same. And ACI-NA is pressing TSA to publish the standards so that airports will have a better idea of “what items to include in order to help ensure the success of their application,” said Bidwell.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.