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Aldermen want to give TSA the boot at O’Hare and Midway

Long security lines at O'Hare (shown) and Midway have some aldermen wanting to boot the Transportation Security Administration and use private contractors. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Fed up with long security lines at O’Hare International Airport that forced thousands of passengers to miss their flights, four powerful aldermen pushed Wednesday to give the Transportation Security Administration the boot and privatize passenger screening at O’Hare and Midway airports.

Help is on the way in the form of more TSA and airline personnel. But that doesn’t seem to matter to Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd), Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) and President Pro-Tem Marge Laurino (39th).

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, they introduced a resolution urging Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans to take matters into her own hands. Specifically, they want Evans to “apply for TSA’s Screening Partnership Program to enhance flexibility in the staffing levels, assignments and operating hours of screening staff in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of passenger screening.”

In a news release distributed along with the resolution, Burke explained that the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program allows airports to “utilize qualified private contractors to screen passengers and baggage under federal oversight in compliance with TSA security procedures.”

CALL SECURITY: TSA sending dozens more officers to Chicago airports

More than 20 airports already do just that, including San Francisco International and Kansas City International, Burke said. Atlanta and New York threatened to do the same but backed off.

“We’re the best the busiest air hub in the nation. People who are flying out of Chicago — whether it’s O’Hare or Midway — shouldn’t be subjected to the kind of hardships that they are today because of the ineptitude of TSA,” Burke told reporters, jumping on an anti-TSA, pro-passenger bandwagon that already includes U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“There’s 3,000 less TSA screeners now than there were in 2011. Does that make any sense? And does it take this kind of crisis to wake up the people in Washington? . . . It’s not working here with TSA. So, maybe it’s an opportunity to give private industry a chance to show whether or not they can do it right” at federal expense.

Burke scoffed at the TSA’s suggestion that “help is on the way” to O’Hare.

“That’s like the FBI agent that shows up at your door and knocks and says, `I’m from the FBI and I’m here to help you,” the alderman said.

Emanuel said he’s open to the possibility of privatizing O’Hare and Midway screening after warning Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson weeks ago that thanks to early summer travel and TSA cuts, “You are not prepared for what’s coming.”

“It’s clear both in Chicago and other cities what happened — and it was totally avoidable and it was totally unacceptable,” he said.

The mayor said the TSA administrator will be in Chicago on Friday for a private meeting “to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

“He will be clearly aware of the introduction of a new ordinance. And the fact is, with New York looking at this, Atlanta looking at it and now Chicago, it’s a wake-up call to TSA that this was a human error of a tremendous magnitude and it’s unacceptable and the sad part about it [is], it was avoidable.”

Earlier this week, Emanuel made it clear he had no appetite for privatizing O’Hare and Midway screening. Why is he now open to the idea?

“You had asked me the question before my phone call [to the TSA]. I wanted to make sure my phone call was received. It was. And now, we’ve got the [added] resources coming,” the mayor said.

“I’m not saying I’m open. I’m saying it’s a tool in the tool box and that’s why I asked the TSA director to be here on Friday for a meeting.”

After several days that saw passengers missing flights and sleeping on cots at O’Hare because of the hours-long wait to get through security — and a security line at Midway that stretched all the way out to the airport’s CTA Orange Line station — the TSA administrator apologized to the people of Chicago and dispatched dozens of reinforcements.

It happened after Kirk demanded that the problems be remedied in time for the Memorial Day rush, Durbin put his foot down and Mayor Rahm Emanuel used his clout as a former White House chief of staff to push for a staffing solution.

All three were tripping over themselves to claim credit.

The aldermanic news release noted that roughly 450 American Airlines customers at O’Hare missed their flights on Sunday because of the security line debacle there.