Aviation Security:

Progress Made to Set Up Program Using Private-Sector Airport Screeners, but More Work Remains

GAO-06-166: Published: Mar 31, 2006. Publicly Released: May 1, 2006.

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In November 2004, as required by law, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began allowing all commercial airports to apply to use private screeners in lieu of federal screeners as part of its Screening Partnership Program (SPP). GAO's prior work found that airports and potential private screening contractors had concerns about the SPP, including whether they would be liable in the event of a terrorist attack and how roles and responsibilities would be divided among TSA airport staff and private screening contractors. This report addresses TSA's efforts to (1) provide liability protection to private screening contractors and airports and address other SPP stakeholder concerns; (2) achieve cost-savings through the SPP; and (3) establish performance goals and measures for the SPP.

DHS and Congress have begun to address whether liability protection may be offered to current and prospective private screening contractors and airports using private screeners. DHS has already provided some liability protection to three of the four current private screening contractors. However, DHS officials stated that they cannot provide additional coverage, which would render contractors virtually immune from all pertinent claims, because TSA has not finalized performance standards that would allow DHS to determine if contractors will perform as intended--a criterion that must be satisfied before providing such additional protection. Recently enacted legislation shields airports from virtually all liability resulting from the negligence or wrongdoing committed by a private screening company or its employees. TSA has also taken action to improve the screener hiring process by granting contractors and TSA airport officials more input and flexibility in the hiring process. Additionally, TSA has defined the roles and responsibilities for SPP stakeholders--TSA airport staff and private screening contractors, among others--in its August 2005 SPP transition plan. However, the details in this plan have not been shared with private screening contractors, and all four contractors we interviewed were unclear about TSA staff roles and responsibilities at the airports they served. TSA has stated that the SPP will operate at a cost that is competitive with equivalent federal operations and will achieve cost-savings where possible. Over the last 3 years, TSA has awarded cost-reimbursement contracts with an award fee component for screening services at four of the five airports currently using private screeners. The award fee is based, in part, on contractor cost-savings. However, opportunities for TSA cost-savings may be limited because under the cost-reimbursement contracts TSA bears most of the cost risk--the risk of paying more than it expected. TSA plans to shift more cost risk to contractors by competitively awarding fixed-price-award fee contracts for screening services at the four smallest airports that will participate in the SPP. TSA also plans to competitively award fixed-price contracts for screening services at larger airports, but stated that they cannot do so for up to 2 years--when officials believe that screening costs at larger airports will be better known. TSA has developed performance goals and has begun drafting related measures and targets to assess the performance of private screening contractors under the SPP in the areas of security, customer service, costs, workforce management, and innovation. For example, one of the measures would require contractors to ensure that new hires receive required training. TSA's related target for this measure is that 100 percent of new hires will complete required training. These same measures and targets will also be used by DHS to assess whether to award full liability coverage under the SAFETY Act. TSA officials stated that DHS must approve the draft performance measures and targets before they can be finalized. As of January 2006, DHS had not yet completed its review.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen its administration of the SPP and to help address stakeholder concerns, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Assistant Secretary, TSA, to formally document and communicate with all federal security directors, current private screening contractors, and entities that apply to the SPP, the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders that participate in the SPP, pertaining to the management and deployment of screening services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our review of TSA's progress to set up the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), we found that SPP stakeholders need clear information on what their roles and responsibilities are to be at airports where a privatized screener workforce operates with federal oversight. We also found that the absence of such guidance may, among other things, affect the ability of responsible officials to effectively and efficiently manage screening checkpoints and the screener program in general. As a result, we recommended that TSA document and communicate to federal and private-sector stakeholders the roles and responsibilities for managing screener operations under the SPP. In October 2006, TSA released an information brief to Federal Security Directors (FSD) on the SPP. The brief contains information on the roles and responsibilities of FSDs, private screening contractors, the airport authority, and other SPP stakeholders. Additionally, TSA's requests for proposals for private screening operations set forth the roles and responsibilities of FSDs and private screening contractors under the SPP. Documenting the roles and responsibilities of SPP stakeholders in the FSD information brief and requests for proposals is consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the completion of a performance management framework for the SPP so that TSA can assess SPP contractors and to promote accountability of SPP contractors for achieving desired program outcomes, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should establish a time frame for completing its review of the performance goals, measures, and targets for the SPP so that TSA may apply them at the earliest possible opportunity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2006, GAO reported that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had developed performance goals and draft measures and targets to assess the performance of private screening contractors under the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had not yet approved them or established a time frame for doing so. We stated that, according to TSA, DHS must approve the draft performance goals, measures, and targets before they can be finalized. However, as of January 2006, DHS had not yet done so, and had not set a deadline for doing so. We reported that until DHS approves these measures, TSA would not be able to finalize and implement performance measures to evaluate private screening contractors under the SPP. Further, we identified that these same measures and targets will be used by DHS to determine whether to award private screening contractors with certification status. Certification status provides the most extensive level of liability protection available under the Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act of 2002 (the SAFETY Act), rendering contractors virtually immune from all pertinent claims. Consistent with the intent of our recommendation, TSA implemented 14 performance standards, which are incorporated into the six new private screening contracts awarded under the SPP. These standards include measures related to, among other things, screener hiring, screener training, and screener performance in detecting threat objects during training and testing. Additionally, DHS approved the use of seven TSA recommended performance standards, so that eligible SPP contractors may be granted certification under the SAFETY Act if they meet the required level of performance for each of these standards.

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