The five US airports currently in the pilot program to test passenger screening by private companies will be joined by others as the US Transportation Security Administration expands its opt-out trials, TSA Branch Chief Kent Olson assured participants at the Airports Council International-North America's annual conference here.

The program "works great," Tryg McCoy, the San Francisco Airport Commission's deputy director-operations, reported. Because "we had not had a great experience" with federal inspectors in other services such as customs and immigration, he explained, "we feared another federal agency" and welcomed the chance to participate in opt-out. SFO worked with Covenant Aviation Security LLC, its contractor, to develop selection criteria for screeners.

Covenant is one of three companies certified by TSA to perform screening. The others are McNeil Security Inc. and FirstLine Transportation Security. Olson told the audience that more companies will be added to the pre-qualified list. TSA assigns the company to the airport but "the airport can have an adviser on the selection committee," he noted. Although an airport cannot be its own screening contractor, it can establish a company to do the work, added Stephen D. Van Beek, ACI-NA's executive VP-policy.

SFO provides laundry service and other benefits for its screeners, McCoy said. Covenant reports weekly to TSA, which manages the contract and works with the airport's terminal managers to assure coordination. "This lets TSA focus on security-concentrate on policy and the overall situation-not on running a 500-person operation," McCoy noted.

TSA insists that contractors pay screeners at least as well as the agency does and that the airport's contracting costs be no higher than those of TSA, Olson said. The contract for each airport in the pilot program is structured differently "to see what is the best value. We want to increase flexibility." He added that "a lot of the contractors' best practices have been incorporated into the TSA program."

Contractors' personnel turnover rate is lower than that of TSA and many of their employees worked for the agency before the opt-out test. "We want to keep your screeners," said McNeil Security CEO James McNeil. Companies "can build things like bonuses into the contract to entice folks to stay around."

In Canada, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, a government-owned corporation, recruits and trains the screeners but the checkpoints are operated by contractors. Airports or airlines can manage the screening program with CATSA's approval, VP-Operations Ian S. MacKay told the group.

CATSA Chairman Brian Flemming suggested to an ACI general session that "100 percent screening . . . may no longer be appropriate. We must all work-internationally, cooperatively and on a common front-toward creation of a statistically sound, risk-management-based system for future screening . . . to allow us to properly reallocate our increasingly scarce resources." And, he added, "As the willingness to provide public funds declines, we must all become more nimble by innovating, fostering best practices and using new techniques to deliver an equivalent security service on a systemwide basis."

Noting that in Canada security costs are borne by airline passengers, Flemming said it is his personal opinion that the question of who pays should be "revisited . . . In a real war, governments pay for the war, not those at risk of being attacked or killed."