News and notes from Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport

City council committee chair is "open minded" about privatizing Atlanta airport security

A key Atlanta city council member said she is "open-minded" about the idea of privatizing security at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, after airport officials raised the idea amid concern about long lines at checkpoints.

Yolanda Adrean, chair of the Atlanta city council transportation committee, which oversees the airport, said customer service and safety are "very important aspects of running our airport."

"Given the level of travelers that we expect this year, it is imperative that we manage wait times. And if a private provider can ensure safety and keep our customers' wait times to a reasonable level, then I would be open-minded to it," Adrean said Monday.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials are frustrated with understaffing at TSA security checkpoints, with wait times that can be nearly an hour long at peak times, according to a recent letter to the Transportation Security Administration. Airport officials fear the lines could get even worse this summer.

In the letter to TSA administrator Peter Neffenger, Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell wrote that the airport is “giving serious consideration” to privatizing the security screening at the world’s busiest airport.

The shot across the bow comes amid rising tensions between the airport and TSA over security lines and the issue of understaffing.

TSA security screening lines snake through Hartsfield-Jackson's terminal atrium during busy periods.

But TSA says its current budget, allocated by Congress, caps screener staffing at the same level as the previous year — the lowest level in five years. Meanwhile, passenger traffic through Atlanta airport security checkpoints has increased 15 percent year-over-year.

Atlanta city council president Ceasar Mitchell expressed some skepticism about the idea of privatizing security at Hartsfield-Jackson, and said he hoped that instead the conflict between the airport and TSA could be resolved.

"We have to make sure we have the best security in place. I'm not sure that privatizing is the way to go. I think from a safety standpoint.... obviously the federal government will have to always be a partner," Mitchell said.

"If there are issues to be worked out, I'm hopeful that issues can be worked out," he said.

Both Mitchell and Adrean said they plan to seek more information on the issue from airport management.

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Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.