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1 in 10 Airport Screeners Are Calling in Sick. Experts Are Worried — But Some Have Solutions

5 minute read

A month into the partial government shutdown, the situation at many of America’s airports has travelers braced for the worst — and some experts concerned about aviation security.

About 1 in 10 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents nationwide called out sick over the holiday weekend. Many are reportedly doing so because they can no longer afford to work without pay. (TSA screeners’ salary is typically between approximately $25,000 and $45,000.) The lack of screeners has forced some major airports, like Miami International Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, to close some screening areas, causing delays. Other airports are prepared for staffing shortages to intensify as the shutdown drags on.

As the number of TSA “sickouts” continues to rise, some experts are worried the situation presents risks beyond headaches for travelers. Without an adequate number of screeners, some say, potential threats could go undiscovered. “I think there is a real security risk at 10% call off,” says Jeff Price, a professor of aviation management at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “That’s above what they normally plan for, and it’s not just local, it’s happening throughout the country. When 1 out of every 10 agents can’t be counted on to be there on a daily basis, I think that’s a small problem which will continue to grow.”

For the screeners who are still showing up, performance is a concern. Daniel Benny, the aviation security program chair at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says that poor morale due to the shutdown and lack of pay can take a toll on workers. Still, he and other experts feel that traveler safety won’t be jeopardized as long as airports properly manage their staff. A TSA spokesperson did not return TIME’s request for comment.

Can anything be done to better insulate airport screeners from long-term government shutdowns in the future? One potential answer: switching screening responsibilities from the TSA to private security firms.

There’s precedent for such a move. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airport security screening was handled by private contractors hired by airlines to implement Federal Aviation Administration-mandated security measures. But insufficient regulation and inadequate training, along with other cost-cutting measures, were blamed for contributing to a lax security system, with disastrous results. Congress created the TSA after 9/11, which took over security airport screening as part of the Transportation Department before being switched to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Now some experts think it could be time to switch back to a privatized model, albeit one held to higher security standards and stringently overseen by the TSA.

“I think there’s a role for TSA to administer the regulations and have TSA [personnel] at the airports,” says Benny. “But the screening aspect, I don’t see a problem with that being contracted out.” He argues that competition would inspire private security contractors to perform as good as or better than TSA agents, so long as they are subject to high training standards, firm regulations, and regular inspections. “They’re going to do a good job if they want to keep the contracts,” he adds.

Other experts say that private screening has been effective outside the U.S. The private model has proven itself in Canada and across much of Europe, according to Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. And nearly two dozen U.S. airports already use private security companies for screenings as part of a TSA program.

Still, airport security privatization could pose problems of its own. There’s an ongoing debate over whether private screeners would be cheaper or more effective, and any government contracting process presents opportunities for corruption. Meanwhile, using private screeners could make it harder to get important security information from the intelligence community to screeners, or vice-versa. Today, the TSA has specialized bomb appraisal officers who work directly at airport security checkpoints with the screening personnel to keep them up to date on the latest threats. They also investigate suspicious packages or unattended items left in airports. At an airport with privately contracted screeners, that information might need to be disseminated through a TSA liaison with the security firm. “It’s the old game of telephone,” says Price. “The downside right now at the privatized airports is there’s another filter in that intelligence feed.” Others argue that the organizational structure of the TSA itself poses a security flaw. “TSA is both the regulator and the service provider,” says Poole. “This is not transparent. It leads to bureaucratic incentives to not hold the provision part of it to as strict scrutiny as it would be if they were separate entities.”

Of course, private airport screening firms work as government contractors, and as such they can also be vulnerable to government shutdowns. But they also might be able to insulate employees from the effects of a shutdown, and not stretch families’ finances to the breaking point, even if the company’s payments from the government are delayed.

“Private industry, if they prepare for this, and you have reliable agencies, they could theoretically still work,” says Benny. “[Firms are] paying their employees, and they would get their money back once the federal government starts paying their contracts.” But Benny also cautions against relying on companies to absorb the shock of a shutdown. “If you have a security firm that doesn’t have the assets to continue paying their people, that could be a problem.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com