Politics and Policy U.S.

Govt. Shutdown Highlights the Need to Privatize Airport Security

If there was ever a prime example of a government agency in need of privatization, the government shutdown made the TSA Exhibit A.

Transportation Security Administration agents called out sick or quit their jobs entirely as the recently-ended partial government shutdown forced them to continue working without pay. Screening passengers for 35 days while earning $0 coupled with absenteeism rates as high as 10 percent tanked morale and caused headaches at airports. Wait times in security lines approached 30 minutes, and a security checkpoint at BWI was closed twice during a weekend.

This decline in TSA effectiveness is hardly tragic. While some argue that the absences and lack of morale may endanger flights, the TSA is more security theater than actual security. At least two tests of agents in 2015 and 2017 in which undercover federal agents attempted to sneak prohibited items through the checkpoints yielded a 95 percent failure rate. Yes, the TSA, guardian of the skies, only managed to detect five percent of all prohibited items federal agents were trying to sneak through. There have been tens of thousands of security breaches since 9/11. Prohibited items include axes, hatchets, firearms, lighters, baseball bats, bear spray, brass knuckles, firecrackers, gasoline, pocket knives, and nunchucks. If federal agents can sneak these items through security, so can well-trained terrorists.

Moreover, the TSA forces people who try to bring shampoo, honey, and other liquids aboard are forced to discard these items because they might be bomb components or explosives—at the checkpoint. With hundreds of passengers waiting to go through. This is a disaster waiting to happen if dangerous chemicals are actually left behind.

The TSA’s security procedures aren’t working. It is only by miracle that tragedy at the hands of terrorists has been absent all these years. The TSA has stopped exactly zero terrorist attacks since its inception; the lack of attempts stemming from a lack of terrorists in the country. However, all it takes is one bad guy to get through. We cannot leave such risk in place, and we need procedures that aren’t time consuming. One out of every seven passengers missed their flights because of excessive security lines last year.

It’s time to privatize airport security. It’s not a radical idea; Canada and most European airports rely on private firms to keep the skies safe, and they’re more efficient. Canada spends less per traveler and less per capita on airport security yet processes more passengers per hour. The United States does have more airports and more passengers, but even so $200 million a year would be saved if the top 35 airports adopted private contractors. A law has been passed to allow airports to opt for private security, but the TSA often blocks airports from doing so, and airports that are approved still have to take marching orders from the TSA, undermining the privatization. Still, 16 airports in the US use private security forces, including the busy San Francisco International Airport.  

Private security is cheaper and faster, but is it more effective? Yes. Private screeners are equally or more effective than their government worker counterparts. Competition between companies drives up quality and drives down incidences of stolen luggage and sexual assault that the TSA likes to call pat-downs. Private companies are incentivized to treat people like people and provide the smoothest experience possible.

Most importantly, the safety of millions of daily passengers would not be potentially compromised during a government shutdown. Security agents would continue to get paid, and therefore would not suffer a decline in morale or call out sick. They wouldn’t need to be concerned with how they’re going to pay their bills, so they’ll always be at 100% when they clock in.

American airport security is a mess. It is more theatrical than safeguarding, putting millions of passengers at risk, especially when TSA agents have to work without pay. The United States should follow in Canada’s and Europe’s footsteps and privatize airport security.   

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