Privatizing Airport Security
Column by Cristian Gherasim.
It may seem kind of odd associating an invasive, property denying measure like frisking with the principles of a free market. In fact, there’s little room for individual sovereignty when it comes to national security. At least that’s how the government thinks and acts: we are guilty until proven innocent; individuals aren’t rational enough to make decisions about their well being, so officials have to step in. This is how I’d sum up the U.S.’s action since the 9/11 attacks. Is there an alternative to this Big Brother approach in managing security? I think there is: private defense agencies offering competitive services on an open market.
With a Florida airport considering ditching the TSA, the debate about whether it would be appropriate to switch to a private company to screen passengers instead of the Transportation Security Administration has resumed. Should customers and markets dictate who attends to security needs? We think so. In fact, when we look at sensitive public interest industries like transportation, the need for quality security service can only be provided by those who are under market pressure and depend on a wide customer base for their very survival.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, governments all over the world increased airport security. The US Congress, in a hasty overreaction to that tragic day, gave the job of screening passengers and baggage to a new federal agency--the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As a result, taxpayers pay for more than 50,000 airport security screeners, and TSA has requested nearly $8 billion in funding for 2011. This led to a massive bureaucracy that bloated the system and created more problems. In spite of all these expenses, the quality of airport screening declined, as the underwear bomber incident showed.
TSA has a severe conflict of interest as it serves as both the aviation security regulator and the provider of key security. Who's watching the watchmen? When it comes to baggage and passenger screening, TSA is regulating itself. It’s the same recipe for disaster found in every state monopoly: unaccountability and inflexibility. And as with any bureaucracy, its natural incentive is to hide errors and make itself look good.
In addition to the conflict of interest, federal screeners also make for fragmented airport security. Take into account that airport perimeters are managed by airports and not the TSA. Because of that, a lack of cohesion and consequently a security gap allows incidents like the Christmas bomber to happen. In Europe, most airports have hired certified private security firms to do their screening, making each airport responsible for every aspect of its own security.
Another mistake that makes the case against airport federal security screening was to let general taxpayers get stuck with much of the cost. A market-oriented strategy would have played out much better, with an additional fee on airline tickets covering the complete cost of airport safety. This makes sense in a system where services providers are paid by consumers and are accountable to them alone. When that fails to happen, customer complaints skyrocket and so does the risk of dangerous mistakes.
The recent pat-down controversy echoes such general discontent with TSA employees. Public opinion considers private screening companies to be far more responsive. If an individual is truly performing under par, a private company is able to take care of that person more swiftly than the federal government. With a private company, if something happens, say a weapon gets through, that employee is gone the next day. If you don’t perform, you’re out. It’s not a job for life as federal jobs sometimes seem to be.
So, how will private contractors improve security and keep the airport customer friendly? First, all airports should be free to hire their own security forces. Private defense implies decentralization, which in the case of the aviation industry means letting each airport implement its own procedures. As Larry Dale, president of the Sanford Airport Authority in Orlando, told CNN: “Airports are unique…one size doesn’t fit all.”
Second, the cost of airport security should be paid by those who use airports: airlines and passengers. Like any other private and competitive enterprise, private screening companies are wired to consumers’ needs and demands. For example, to avoid overcrowding, private screeners are much more able to flex their staffing level to meet an airport’s varying needs. Unlike the federal government, they could expand their ranks when passenger loads triple during the summer and contract when the airport’s split-flight schedule takes effect in winter. It’s obvious that the ability to adjust staffing levels quickly facilitates more efficient screening and shorter wait times, which translates into satisfied customers and safer flights.