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TSA dismisses report that it is considering ending passenger screenings at smaller airports

TSA dismisses report that it is considering ending passenger screenings at smaller airports
Passengers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport wait to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint on May 16, 2016. The TSA is playing down a report that the agency is considering pulling out of smaller airports to focus resources on larger ones. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The Transportation Security Administration is playing down a news report that the agency is considering pulling its agents out of about 150 small and mid-sized airports to focus TSA resources on the country’s biggest.

The TSA responded Thursday to a report by CNN citing senior agency officials and internal documents that said the proposal would save up to $115 million that could be deployed to airports with greater terrorism risks. It also quoted an internal agency report that said such a move would bring about a "small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity."

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TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the proposal for ending passenger screenings at airports serving planes with 60 or fewer seats was only part of an annual budget exercise to consider ways to improve efficiencies in the agency — adding that a formal risk evaluation of the idea has not been completed.

“Every year as part of the federal budget process, the TSA is asked to discuss possible ways to be more efficient,” Bilello said. “This year is no different.”

The TSA, with an annual budget of $7.58 billion, employs about 60,000 workers, screening passengers at 440 airports nationwide.

But the CNN report, citing two senior agency officials unhappy with the proposal, suggested this year that the idea is being take more seriously, reflected by a TSA working group of 20 people — including a representative of the agency’s administrator’s office — who met on June 21 to examine the potential risks of the policy change.

Passengers from smaller airports taking connecting flights would be screened, along with their luggage, at their arrival at larger airports, which have more advanced security measures, according to documents cited by CNN.

Bilello said budget efficiency meetings at the TSA are always taken seriously, but he added that “no decisions has been made for the TSA to stop serving any airport.”

The report has spurred requests by lawmakers for more information and protests from unions representing TSA screeners, including the chapter that represents TSA agents at Los Angeles International Airport

“Not only is this extremely risky to the safety of the American flying public, but it is once again this administration’s emboldening of anti-people policies placing profits over people,” Bobby Orozco, vice president of the AFGE Council 100, said in an email to other union leaders.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, issued a statement saying the TSA proposal would “undoubtedly create security gaps and may negatively impact the economy — especially in rural America.”

The CNN report said terrorists have long identified smaller airports as weak points in the country’s security regime. It noted that two of the Sept. 11 terrorists first flew from Portland, Maine, to Boston, where they boarded American Airlines Flight 11, which was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

The report said that although Portland's airport “likely would not be included in the proposal because of its volume of passengers, the 9/11 attackers perceived the airport to be less secure because of its relatively small size.”

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