Top Democrats and Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee are concerned that the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) decision last week to award a production contract to a single vendor for the first tranche of new checkpoint baggage scanners instead of continuing to proceed with multiple competitors could stifle competition and innovation.

TSA on March 28 awarded Smiths Detection a $96.8 million contract to acquire 300 computed tomography (CT) scanners that will begin replacing existing Advanced Technology (AT) X-Ray systems agency operators currently use to screen carry-on bags at airport checkpoints for potential threats (Defense Daily, March 28). The CT systems provide a three-dimensional image to operators, giving them a better look at the contents inside a bag, and will allow travelers to leave their electronic devices inside their bags.

“The initial contract covers only a small portion of the CT machines TSA will need to purchase over the long-term,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, and Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said in a March 29 letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“By awarding the entire contract to a single vendor, TSA risks giving that vendor an insurmountable advantage over competitors, potentially limiting future competition and innovation,” the committee leaders said. “In the past, TSA has encountered challenges in advancing other security technology programs that have relied on technology from a single vendor. The more TSA incentivizes a broad and diverse network of companies to compete for CT and other awards, the tougher the competition will be and the better the ultimate security result.”

One industry official told Defense Daily on Monday that TSA had been telling vendors it would be a single award, but “we in the industry just didn’t believe it.” The official also questioned the logic behind a single award early in the program, pointing out that TSA risks hampering further development of the CT systems and the detection algorithms.

Moreover, the official said, the losing bidders in the first round see an award they didn’t get and start questioning whether this is a market they want to be in,” noting that “It’s not like TSA will be buying new systems every quarter to keep vendors in the game. They probably won’t make an award for another 12 months or so.”

A second industry official told Defense Daily that with just one manufacturer receiving a production award that will limit investments made by the remaining competitors to improve their systems and detection performance.”

TSA selected Smiths Detection’s HI-SCAN 6040 CTiX system over entries from Analogic, Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, and L3 Technologies [LLL], although Pekoske told reporters on March 29 that his agency plans to continue testing and evaluating each vendors’ CT systems as part of a new round of competition for the machines that will require an integrated solution with Automated Screening Lanes.  He said TSA plans an award, or awards, within the next year for the next round of CT systems.

Pekoske said on the March 29 media call that TSA plans to buy more than 2,000 checkpoint CT systems for U.S. airports. Previously, he has said there is no reason why there can’t be a one-for-one replacement of the roughly 2,400 existing AT systems at airports with the new CT systems. TSA is seeking funding to buy 320 checkpoint CT systems.

The award to Smiths Detection, which is part of Britain’s Smiths Group, was made under the AT/CT program. In the next round of competition, competitors will have to meet more robust detection standard, the Accessible Property Screening Standard (APSS). TSA, in a Request for Information on March 29, said it plans to continue to require the CT systems it buys to be able to meet tougher detection standards over time under APSS.

Smiths, along with OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan Systems division, are the current providers of AT X-ray systems to TSA for carry-on baggage screening. The second industry official said that TSA went with the CT bidder that they are familiar and comfortable with in Smiths.

In their letter to Pekoske, the House members also asked why TSA was able to award a contract to Smiths for 300 systems versus prior estimates from agency that it would initially buy between 150 to 200 CT systems.

“Although we are pleased that TSA will be able to deploy additional CT machines with FY 2019 funding, we question why you were unable to provide more accurate estimates to the Committee previously,” the letter said.

Pekoske is scheduled to testify before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security on April 9.