Scrap TSA at Sky Harbor? City Memo Says It's Complicated

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport might get rid of the Transportation Security Administration and bring in a private company to screen passengers and bags, according to an internal city memo released on Thursday, May 26.

Under a "Screening Partnership Program" model now in place at 22 airports nationwide, security personnel from a private company would take over in a highly regulated system overseen by the TSA.

But the May 23 memo from James Bennett, Phoenix director of Aviation Services, to Deputy City Manager Paul Blue, warns that the move would come with "significant uncertainty" and might not solve the problem of long security lines.

Alternatives to the federal TSA must be considered because of an "alarming" upcoming redeployment of TSA screeners this summer to help reduce wait times at other airports, Bennett explains in the memo. The loss of screeners will come on top "excessive wait times" already being experienced at Sky Harbor's security checkpoints as peak travel season in Phoenix winds down, he writes.

The TSA has faced increasing criticism nationwide this month owing to of long security lines, which the TSA has blamed on Congressional budget cuts, staffing shortages, a large rise in air travel this year, and tightened security in response to audits in which fake bombs and guns were smuggled past checkpoints. TSA administrator Peter Neffenger testified to Congress this week about the problems, saying the lines were unlikely to shorten anytime soon.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio's office found and released the memo. DiCiccio offered a written statement but declined to comment further for this story.

"I applaud city staff for taking this on," the statement reads. "The long wait lines, people missing flights, lost luggage and hours of waiting in line are not acceptable. I have pushed for this change and look forward to improving our customer service at Sky Harbor."

City spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez tells New Times that as of Thursday, no decisions have been made on the potential plan, and no "timetable" exists for a decision. The city's aviation department "would definitely first concur with the Mayor and City Council," she says.

Officials are contemplating the plan because TSA service and wait times at the airport have been "less than satisfactory for many months," says Deborah Ostreicher, the city's assistant aviation director.

Many visitors to Sky Harbor in recent months have experienced the problem firsthand. The matter seemed to come to a head a couple of weeks ago, when a bomb-detecting machine malfunctioned, causing TSA to move 3,000 bags to a parking lot before shipping them to other cities to be screened. That's when Phoenix began looking seriously at ditching the TSA.

Whether customer service would improve under a different setup is part of Bennett's "uncertainty."

For one thing, it would take a while to institute a new screening program. If the city chooses to file an application, securing approval could take 18 months or more and might prove costly, the memo states. The TSA would guide, or maybe impede, the process every step of the way.

After the TSA replaced private vendors at airports nationwide following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Congress approved the Screening Partnership Program as a way to test the efficiency of private security companies and compare them with the TSA. San Francisco International Airport is the largest airport using an SPP.

The primary criterion for an airport with an SPP is that the setup must "not compromise security or detrimentally affect the cost-efficiency or the effectiveness" of screenings. Phoenix could recommend a private company to do the work, but TSA would ultimately choose the vendor. The company, which would work for the TSA, would be required to hire existing TSA officers and use TSA screening equipment.

Bennett's memo says vendors would decide how many screeners would be deployed, giving the city more flexibility to add or subtract staff when needed.

Though screeners must be paid at least as much as TSA officers now receive, the memo states that a new program might save some money — for the feds, not Phoenix. And the SPP model has drawbacks: The TSA might be less likely to help Sky Harbor with additional resources during peak times, for example, and there might be unexpected costs. Moreover, moving to an SPP could raise "unrealistic expectations" of the traveling public. The San Francisco airport is now experiencing wait times similar to those in Phoenix, Bennett noted.

The fact is, officials don't know how it would work. An SPP in Phoenix would make Sky Harbor a guinea pig.

"No large hub international airport has ever transitioned from a federalized workforce to this model," Bennett wrote.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez confirmed to New Times that Phoenix could replace the TSA, but he said he couldn't "air the dirty laundry" of recent discussions about the issue between city and federal officials.

Echoing statements from TSA officials in recent weeks, Melendez said air traffic is up 7 to 10 percent this year, while TSA staffing levels have remained at 2015 numbers. Congress stopped funds that the TSA could have used to boost hiring, causing the line problem to begin at about spring break time, he said.
The TSA is working toward its own solutions, Melendez added. Nearly 800 new screeners will be added by mid-June, he said. Other resources, including bomb-sniffing dogs, are being shifted around to streamline the screening process. The agency announced this week that it would release real-time line information on its website and app, allowing passengers to check wait times the same way they would for attractions at Disneyland.

TSA spokespeople have debuted another tactic, as well: downplaying the waits. Melendez and other TSA media officials have been posting photos on Twitter in recent days, documenting short screening lines at airports. On May 19, for instance, Melendez tweeted that a checkpoint at Sky Harbor's Terminal Four had a wait time of about 30 minutes, while another checkpoint was "empty."

Melendez tells New Times that 85 percent of airport travelers wait less than 10 minutes for security screening, while only 6 percent wait longer than 30 minutes.

"Is it really worth all the hullabaloo about 6 percent of passengers"" he mused. "I don't think so."

Read the aviation services director's memo: