Airport Screening: TSA Versus Private Security Firms

With lines at airports now approaching absurd lengths, a movement is arising for employing private screeners instead of the government TSA screeners. There are such strong reasons for doing this that even Vox, hardly a friend of the private sector, argues in favor of the move.

Many people argued in favor of private screeners after 9/11, but let’s not forget that Democrats pushed through government screeners in an effort to promote unionization and additional government employees. George Bush agreed to the Democrats’ demands, and here we are.

Under the law, airports can hire private screeners, which would then be regulated by TSA. But relatively few airports use private screeners, even though those that do appear to have experienced significant benefits. There is evidence that private screeners are better at detecting bombs and that they process travelers more quickly. There are other benefits:

Why would an airport want to go through the trouble of hiring and supervising its own contractors? Flexibility, for starters. Under TSA rules, airports need to obtain federal permission if they want to adjust the number of TSA screeners on-site. The process is time-consuming and makes it hard for airports to ramp up staffing during peak periods. Worse, if the TSA wants to hire more inspectors, it needs to go back to Congress for the funding, with uncertain results.

There’s a strong efficiency argument as well. Under the current system, the TSA both sets the rules for airport security and enforces them. In effect, the agency regulates itself. Local authorities have few if any means to seek redress if TSA screening proves inefficient, ineffective or weak on customer service. Firing a contractor is easy; firing a unionized government employee much less so.

TSA managers themselves have little professional incentive to fix problems. The resulting culture of mediocrity has real safety consequences. The TSA’s own studies found 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports between 2001 and 2011. Last year, Homeland Security investigators achieved a 95 percent success rate in smuggling mock explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints.

My cynical view about government also makes me wonder whether the TSA really allows private screeners. This article, from a few years back, says that the rules and their implementation are biased against private screeners:

When the FAA was re-authorized in 2012, legislation demanded that the TSA quit bottlenecking the process for airports to opt for private screeners, the way that some like San Francisco International have already done. But according to the June Airport Policy News, the TSA is playing new games with the certification process to avoid any airports opting out of TSA screeners.

Not a single new contract has been approved, and procurements that were underway have been halted with the intention of ‘starting the process over later.’ Orlando Sanford airport has an approved application allowing it to bring on private screeners, it just hasn’t been allowed to contract for them.

The article details various other serious problems with the TSA opt out system. For example,“the TSA says they won’t let airports have private screeners unless those private screeners are cheaper than TSA screeners, “but the TSA calculates their own costs in a biased way and won’t allow the private screeners to pay their employees less.”

Sad. Unsurprising—in fact, predictable and predicted—but sad.