For More Privatization and Less Unionization at the TSA

I travel a lot and one of most unpleasant problems I encounter is the TSA. The lines are frequently long and the employees on occasion discourteous. But the most annoying aspect is that I have very little confidence that its procedures are well designed to keep us safe or that its personnel even assiduously follow these procedures. Over the summer confirmation of my fears came in the form of Homeland Security’s revelation that in over ninety percent of the instances, a “red team” designed to test security got through with some sort of dangerous contraband. Such failures should force us to reconsider the structure of TSA.

What the agency most needs is more private competition. Currently few passengers go through private screening. If the agency put more private contracts out for bid, the government could incentivize better results.   The contracts could include clauses that would reward companies for passing the tests that the government run screening has so miserably failed. More competition would also aid innovation and efficiency over time.  A centralized bureaucracy is unlikely to come up on its own with the all best ideas. At first, the government could continue to centralize various aspects of security, like background checks of screeners. But even those could be outsourced as if contractors could show that they had better methods.

The government should also reconsider unionization of TSA screeners currently employed by the agency. The FBI and Secret Service are not unionized on the theory that unionization would detract from the needed flexibility and discipline.  To be sure, these agencies have important duties. But attacks on our transportation system can be as destabilizing to our nation and economy as many of the activities that those agencies address. What then is the rationale for unionizing TSA employees? If defenders of unions argue that unionizing the TSA improves morale and makes screening better, let us put that claim to the test. On a random basis, some airports could be permitted to have a union and others not.  We could  then evaluate the results.

TSA’s poor performance is a great opportunity for Congress simultaneously to improve our safety and its standing with the public. It should send up a bill mandating more privatization and force the administration to test the effects of unionization. I would be surprised if such legislation could not garner bipartisan support that would make it difficult to veto.

Reader Discussion

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on November 12, 2015 at 16:07:00 pm

Perhaps the airlines should be held legally accountable for not making reasonable efforts to prevent bad guys from from doing bad things on their aircraft. The TSA screeners could be retired. Right now the government is spending our money very inefficiently to do the jobs of airlines. The government should still work with the airlines because governments can do things well that airlines cannot.

In my work we are responsible for data in computer systems. If bad guys do bad things to our systems we are held responsible. There is no government agency filtering access to our systems. That's our job, not the government's.

The TSA work is just like building computer firewalls. Every time you build an eight foot firewall, the bad guys build a nine foot ladder to get over it. Same goes for TSA security. It's a battle that can't be won, at least not completely. You can make reasonable efforts though and you can hold organizations accountable for not making a credible effort. I think that is the direction we should be going. The all-government approach isn't working. It's a way to reduce costs for the airlines at the taxpayer's expense.

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Scott Amorian
on November 17, 2015 at 04:59:51 am

Or maybe air carriers could compete on security. Let consumers choose exactly how much they want to pay — in time, money and hassle — to “feel” safe.

[Air carriers are already held almost entirely responsible when bad things happen on their aircraft. It's called tort liability. Government security screening does nothing to reduce or alleviate this legal responsibility.]

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