Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt introduced a measure Tuesday that would require the federal Transportation Security Administration to use private security screeners if local airport officials don't want government employees staffing the metal detectors and patting down people.
Blunt's U.S. Senate proposal comes after the federal agency recently said it will not allow private screeners at any additional airports unless there is a clear advantage to doing so.
Since the TSA was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal law has allowed airports the option of using private screeners, who are hired and overseen by the TSA. Private contractors currently are used at just 16 of the nation's roughly 460 commercial airports, including in San Francisco, Kansas City and seven locations in Montana.
The Springfield-Branson National Airport in southwest Missouri sought in December to replace federal screeners with private contractors. But the airport's request was rejected last week. That decision drew the ire of Blunt, a Republican from Springfield.
"Congress clearly intended that this opt-out would be open to all airports," Blunt said in a statement to The Associated Press. "I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the hardworking TSA screeners at the Springfield airport, but the law doesn't say that the TSA administrator gets to stop the program whenever he decides he wants to."
Blunt introduced a measure Tuesday that would require the federal government to approve the use of private security screeners within 30 days of a request. The senator plans to amend the measure to legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, said Blunt spokeswoman Amber Marchand.
Officials at the Springfield-Branson airport said they wanted to make the switch to private contractors to improve customer service.
A woman in a wheelchair recently was left at a security checkpoint for 15 to 20 minutes by TSA employees, causing her to miss her flight, said airport spokesman Kent Boyd. A few years ago, the TSA screeners closed the airport's checkpoint before all the flights had left in the evening, he said. And on occasion, there have been waits as long as 40 minutes without screeners opening up a second x-ray machine, Boyd said.
He said airport administrators had hoped they would have greater sway over contracted security screeners.
"When the TSA is running everything at an airport, the airport administration is really just on the sidelines," Boyd said. "In the private security arrangement, it's a different situation."
Airport officials had expected it would take 12-18 months for the TSA to decide upon its request to use private screeners. Instead, the request got shot down in a matter of weeks.
"We were stunned and disappointed and, frankly, more than a little bit disgusted," Boyd said.
The Transportation Security Administration declined an AP request for an interview about the denial of private contractors at the Springfield-Branson airport. Instead, it provided a written statement from TSA Administrator John Pistole explaining that he had reviewed the agency's policies in an effort to make it "a more agile, high-performing organization."
"As part of that review, I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports, as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time," Pistole said in the statement.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the nation's largest federal employee union, has praised Pistole's decision.
But Florida Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he intends to launch an investigation into denial of additional screening contractors.