House bill would require competition on TSA biometric contract

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be required under a House bill to seek competitive bids for the first time to process fingerprint data needed for background checks on aviation workers. Previously, the TSA had designated a sole provider to perform the work.

The TSA reauthorization bill, H.R. 2200, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), contains a provision that would stipulate competitive bids for work currently performed exclusively by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). The legislation is expected to come to the House floor this week.

The TSA in November 2001 designated the AAAE’s Transportation Security Clearinghouse to process and transmit the biometric data needed for threat assessments and criminal history record checks for millions of aviation workers who require access to the secure areas of airports; the checks are based on fingerprints collected from the workers. TSA later also designated the clearinghouse to perform the services for the Registered Traveler and several other biometric identity programs.

Several biometric services vendors, as well as airport officials, have called for those services to be competitively bid.

Under the measure approved by the House Homeland Security Committee May 14, competition would be required for work related to performing background checks in the aviation industry, including checks on airport workers when they are hired.

“Not later than nine months after the date of enactment of this section, the [agency] shall publish in the Federal Register a notice that the selection process for security background screening services for persons requiring background screening in the aviation industry is subject to full and open competition,” the bill reads.

“This legislation is a good thing and is long overdue,” said Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association. The association “has tried for some time to convince TSA that this service should be subject to full and open competition.”

Several commercial entities are qualified to provide similar services, which include storage, forwarding and channeling of the fingerprint data, Hamilton said. For example, Lockheed Martin Corp. is performing similar services for the TSA’s Transportation Workers Identification Credential for 1.2 million seaport workers.

Several airport authorities also support that section of the bill. “I have long been an advocate for doing away with the current sole-source contract and opening security screening services to competitive bidding,” Frederick Piccolo, president of the Sarasota airport, wrote in a letter to Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.)

An AAAE official said the clearinghouse initially was established to provide the fingerprint data processing and handling services specified by the TSA to the association’s membership. Later, the TSA also designated the clearinghouse as the sole provider of similar services for other TSA programs, such as Registered Traveler.

“Our members demand that these services get done as efficiently, effectively and at as low of a cost as possible,” said Carter Morris, senior vice president of the AAAE. The association’s main concern is that services are not disrupted while moving toward competition, he said: “We have asked Congress to do no harm and to make sure that any other service provider can meet all the requirements.”