There’s a new GAO report out today that’s very, very meta: it’s an evaluation of the Transportation Security Administration’s own report on a study of the effectiveness of the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), which allows airports to contract airport security out to TSA-approved security firms.
The TSA study examined security at Greater Rochester International Airport in New York, Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming, Sioux Falls’ airport in South Dakota, Kansas City International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi. TSA found (unsurprisingly) that “screening at SPP airports currently costs approximately 17.4 percent more to operate than at airports with federal screeners, and that SPP airports fell within the ‘average performer’ category for the performance measures included in its analysis. . . . the contractor concluded that passenger screening at the SPP airports has historically cost from 9 to 17 percent more than at non-SPP airports, and private screeners performed at a level that was equal to or greater than that of federal TSOs.” (This is unsurprising because the law requires that “private screening companies selected by TSA must provide its screening personnel compensation and other benefits at a level not less than the compensation and other benefits provided to federal government personnel.” When you add in another layer of management because of the contractor, you get — surprise — higher costs.)
The GAO determined that TSA’s study employed flawed methodology because it failed to “include the impact of potential overlapping administrative staff on the costs of SPP airports,” “account for workers compensation, general liability insurance, and some retirement costs paid by the federal government, as well as the lost corporate income tax revenue from private screening contractors, when replacing private with federal screening,” “call for statistical analyses to determine the level of confidence in observed differences in performance between SPP and non-SPP airports,” among others. Conclusion: “[W]e believe that TSA should not use the study as sole support for major policy decisions regarding the SPP.”
So, why is this study of a study of a study important?
As additional airports apply to participate in the SPP, it is important that TSA have accurate and reliable information about screening cost and performance at both SPP and non-SPP airports so that the agency can make informed decisions when considering whether to approve airport participation in the SPP. It is also important that TSA have a well-developed and well-documented approach for analyzing the cost and performance of SPP airports if such comparisons are made in the future. Because of the limitations that we have identified, the TSA study should not be used as the sole support for making major policy decisions.
Airports hiring outside contractors through the SPP may be enjoying better service. If outside contractors can be hired at a lower cost while still maintaining or exceeding TSA levels of service, that’s valuable information for policymakers. TSA’s study indicated that these benefits don’t exist, which would lead policymakers to abandon a program like the SPP. The GAO’s findings in this report expose the flaws in TSA’s study and suggest that, perhaps, the SPP might be worthwhile — if it is studied correctly.