Infrastructure & Environment

At Airports, a Sudden Shift in Who's Handling Some Security

Some security responsibilities are being shifted away from the federal government and to airports themselves. Critics say the change could cost airports more than $200 million a year.
by | October 21, 2013
Airline passengers have their identifications checked while passing through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Starting in January, it will become airports' responsibility -- instead of the Transportation Security Administration's -- to guard exit lanes. AP/Erik S. Lesser

A Transportation Security Administration plan to shift a long-held security responsibility away from the federal government and to airports themselves could cost the facilities more than $200 million a year.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, TSA has maintained personnel at some airport exit lanes -- the zones or hallways that arriving passengers pass through as they exit a terminal. The goal is to ensure that no unauthorized people use those exit lanes to enter the terminal without passing through proper screening.

But TSA recently started notifying airports that, starting in January, it will become their responsibility to guard those exit lanes -- and pay for the work. The move will affect about 350 exit lanes at 145 airports, including heavily-trafficked facilities in Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis, says Joel Bacon, vice president of legislative affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives.

It’s a significant shift, given the importance of exit lane security. A 2010 incident at the Newark airport showed just how seriously exit lane breaches are taken. When a man walked the wrong way through an exit lane, officials grounded flights and shut down the terminal for hours. Passengers were stranded, and thousands had to be re-screened, including many who had already boarded airplanes. The incident garnered scrutiny from Congress and was an embarrassment to TSA.

TSA officials say the shift in responsibility is a smart one for the agency, allowing it to more efficiently target its resources toward high-risk passengers. The Department of Homeland Security estimates in its 2014 budget that the move will save $88.1 million annually and result in a decrease in nearly 1,500 full-time equivalent workers.

But airport officials and the associations representing them say the decision is a sudden one that could have huge budgetary and operational impacts for airports that aren’t ready to take on the new responsibilities. They estimate that the cost of adding new exit-lane personnel will collectively cost them more than $200 million annually.

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Bacon said airport associations only learned about the shift from TSA this spring, and this month, some airports began receiving letters formally describing the plans. Airports will have to oversee the exit lanes using private security, local law enforcement or perhaps technological solutions such as remote video monitors. Their plans must be approved by TSA.

While they can file a petition to appeal the move, TSA has made it clear that the policy isn’t going to change. "They have no choice in the matter,” says David Castelveter, a spokesman for TSA. Airports are currently mulling whether to file a federal lawsuit to challenge the plan.

Historically, security screening was the responsibility of airlines, whose work was overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the feds took over the responsibility through the TSA. Bacon says it’s a big deal for that responsibility to now go to airports, since they haven’t had it before.

Airport officials also say that with the change coming in January -- the middle of the fiscal year -- finding flexibility in their budget will be difficult. They also emphasize that it’s unlikely they can implement a safe technological solution as quickly as they would need to comply with the deadline. And even if they could, the investment would be risky because TSA has never released national standards indicating what such a system would look like.

Moreover, airports and airlines alike agree that airports will pay for the added security costs by hiking up the fees they charge airlines. Airlines, in turn, will pass that cost on to customers. That’s why the airline industry also opposes the move. Lawrence Krauter, director of the airport in Spokane, Wash., says the move will cost his airport $300,000 annually, which will be levied on the airlines. “We don’t have $300,000 in the budget,” Krauter says. “The airlines aren’t happy. It will increase their rental fees in the building. I can’t wait to have that discussion,” he said sarcastically.

Bacon says the shift raises a slew of operational issues too, since pilots, flight attendants, law enforcement officers and other personnel called “Known Crew Members” may enter the terminal through the exit lanes in some cases. Yet airports don’t have screening authority. (Interestingly, Castelveter adamantly insists crew members don’t enter terminals via exit lanes, while Bacon just as adamantly insists they do).

Despite opposition from airports and airlines, TSA says it’s not abdicating any responsibility at all. Its argument relies on a semantic distinction. The process of “access control” -- making sure that particular parts of the airport are locked and only certain individuals have the key or access -- falls on the airports, not TSA. The feds say manning exit lanes is an access control issue, not a security issue, making it squarely the airports’ job. “TSA inherited the exit lanes and has now determined that the time has come that all the responsibility can go back to the airports or the airlines,” Castelveter says.

Moreover, they say the shift isn’t all that new. Among the airports where TSA has a presence, only about a third would be impacted by the shift. Two-thirds of airports already oversee their own exit lanes. The exit lanes that TSA currently mans tend to be those that are “co-located” with a security checkpoint, and when the exit lanes are more clearly separated, airports generally oversee them. TSA argues that if two-thirds of airports have figured out how to man exit lanes, the other third should have no problem. But airport officials don’t buy that reasoning. If the exit lanes aren’t TSA’s responsibility, they argue, then the agency wouldn’t have been manning them for more than a decade.

Airport officials are also highly critical of the process by which TSA is making the shift. Rather than doing it through federal legislation or the typical rulemaking process federal agencies follow, it’s being made within individual airports’ security plans. Krauter, of Spokane, says that’s no accident and had allowed the process to go forward quickly and quietly, since airports can’t share those documents with the public. Indeed, the issue has garnered hardly any media coverage at all. He worries whether the impact will have serious implications on safety. “Whenever you take responsibility and start divvying it up, the opportunity for errors increases,” Krauter says. “That’s a real concern.”

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