TSA studies eliminating checkpoints at smaller airports, but criticism is fierce

A Transportation Security Administration officer checks a traveler's bag at a screening location at Salt Lake City International Airport.
George Frey | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Transportation Security Administration officer checks a traveler's bag at a screening location at Salt Lake City International Airport.

WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration has studied closing its checkpoints at the country's smallest 150 airports – about one-third of the total – but a firestorm of criticism was swift and widespread even before the idea became a formal proposal.

Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airports Council International-North America, said eliminating TSA screening on any commercial flights "raises significant national security concerns."

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said rather than dropping service, Congress should provide all the funding that TSA ticket fees generate to the agency. About $1.3 billion is diverted from TSA each year to help reduce the budget.

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"This is completely nuts," said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told The Washington Post.

But Mike Bilello, a TSA spokesman, said the idea was merely something the agency studied as part of its annual budget review, as one way to curb expenses.

"There has been no decision to eliminate passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport," Bilello said. "TSA remains committed to its core mission to secure the Homeland by screening more than 2.5 million airline passengers per day."

CNN reported on the study Wednesday, based on documents from an internal study committee from June and July.

The idea that has been studied since at least 2011 is appealing because dropping the federal staffing at airports with planes that seat 60 passengers or less would save $115 million per year. The airports serve about 10,000 passengers per day and require nearly 1,300 TSA workers. Those workers could be shifted to larger airports among the 440 locations where TSA now screens passengers.

TSA already allows 22 airports nationwide to hire private security, so long as they meet federal security standards. Many are small airports, such as several in Wyoming, where local officials say private screening allows greater flexibility in staffing. But the largest include San Francisco International Airport, Kansas City International Airport and Orlando Sanford International Airport, the smaller of the two Orlando-area airports.

Security remains a high priority after the terrorist hijackings Sept. 11, 2001.

"The elimination of TSA screening passengers on commercial flights – regardless of seating configuration – raises significant national security concerns," said Bidwell of the airport group. "The proposal creates unnecessary security, liability and logistical concerns and challenges for airports receiving flights with unscreened passengers."

Thompson, the House member, said cutting back on aviation security "would undoubtedly create security gaps and may negatively impact the economy — especially in rural America."

If TSA were to eliminate staffing at smaller airports, connecting passengers would have to be screened when arriving at larger airports, which would require an overhaul of passenger traffic at all of those airports. The process would be similar to how international passengers must pass through customs and immigration processing at the first U.S. airport they reach before meeting a connecting flight.

"TSA might save some money from an operational perspective, but someone's going to pay for this change and it's going to be the passenger," said Jeff Price, an aviation security expert and professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. "The burden of costs will now fall on the larger airport operators who have to reconfigure and possibly build or rebuild terminal facilities and concourses so that reverse screening check points can be installed."

Price added that while larger aircraft with more people and fuel aboard have been targets so far, terrorists might still target smaller planes as radicalized individuals.

"A small aircraft would not make a very good weapon of mass destruction, yet it can still be commandeered and be an effective small weapon used against a smaller ground target," Price said.

Bilello said TSA reviews ways to make its operation more efficient every year, but wouldn't be adopted without weighing the risks.

"Any potential operational changes to better allocate limited taxpayer resources are simply part of predecisional discussions and deliberations and would not take place without a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system," Bilello said.