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Editorial: TSA can’t pass the buck on exit security

March 12, at Sea-Tac Airport, thousands of passengers had to be rescreened because a clueless individual had entered the “sterile area” by way of the exit. It took 90 minutes for airport security to find him.

Much the same thing happened at Newark International Airport in January 2010 when a man crashed the exit area so he could give his girlfriend one more smooch. There have been other minor incidents.

At some airports, there are more concourse exits than entrances. But if the Transportation Security Administration has its way, responsibility for security at those points will be transferred to the airports, which have never had that duty.

And the TSA is apparently so determined to have its way that Administrator John Pistole is prepared to act unilaterally: no consultation, no rule-making, nobody’s business if they do. Eliminating exit security will eliminate about 1,000 positions, and cut $88 million from a TSA fiscal 2014 budget request of $7.4 billion.

Even the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee is turning up its nose at this bag of peanuts.

Spokane International Airport officials aren’t buying it either. In a letter to Pistole last week, Chief Executive Officer Larry Krauter cited chapter and verse of the TSA enabling act and the agency’s own regulations to challenge the administrator’s authority to impose terminal security on airports, which are traditionally responsible only for activity on the tarmac, runways, ramps and baggage handling areas.

Prior to 9/11, the airlines controlled the exit areas.

Krauter says securing exits would cost the airport $350,000 annually, and raise airline rentals 7 percent; costs already paid by them as an Aviation Security Infrastructure Fee. Applied across 400 commercial airports, the TSA action amounts to an unfunded mandate.

Possibly un-legal, too, and Krauter concludes his message “respectfully informing” Pistole that his initiative will not fly in Spokane. Other airports are sending similar letters.

If the TSA is so all-fired anxious to be rid of exit security, handing the task and cost back to the airlines would be a better solution.

Thanks to consolidation, the carriers are filling seats, earning profits and imposing new fees for everything but bad haircuts. A healthy industry is a good thing – certainly for Boeing Co. – but all these fees provide extra thrust because they are not subject to the excise tax imposed on the basic fare. The revenue goes straight to the bottom line.

Pistole, who had a 26-year career with the FBI before taking over at TSA in 2010, has made modest efforts to make screening less onerous. An ill-considered plan to allow four-inch knives on planes was a misstep, but he has otherwise been hard-nosed about protecting passengers and managing one of the least-loved federal agencies.

It will be up to the Congress or the courts to tell Pistole whether he is exceeding his authority by unloading responsibility for exits. But he should be made to explain how a hodgepodge of local solutions, the inevitable snafus, and the transfer of costs helps anyone but the TSA.


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