Millions of Americans dread going to the airport. Surging passenger volumes and declining numbers of screeners have led to security lines that can average over an hour in length. Thousands of passengers are missing flights daily. Meanwhile, airports and airlines are struggling to contain passenger anger. One airline trade group asked passengers to troll the Transportation Security Administration by tweeting of long lines with the hashtag #ihatethewait.
While no doubt satisfying, such stunts aren’t going to speed up security checks before the upcoming summer rush. To solve this problem, which has beenyears in the making, the government may have to get the TSA out of the screening business altogether.
The idea is neither new nor outlandish. Canada and most Western European countries use private contractors to screen passengers, as the U.S. did before the 9/11 attacks. The Federal Aviation Administration set security standards and guidelines but individual airports chose the companies doing the actual screening.
Obviously, the system missed the 9/11 hijackers. (That said, the federal government didn’t specifically ban box cutters from flights back then, so screeners had little reason to search for them.) Even after federalizing airport security, the TSA allowed five U.S. airports, including San Francisco International, to continue using private contractors. Today, 21 U.S. airports employ their own screeners.
Why would an airport want the trouble of hiring and supervising its own contractors? Flexibility, for starters. Under TSA rules, airports need federal permission to adjust the number of TSA screeners on-site, which is time-consuming and makes it hard to ramp up staffing during peak periods. Worse, if the TSA wants more inspectors, it must go back to Congress for the funding.
There’s a strong efficiency argument as well. The TSA now both sets the rules for airport security and enforces them, in effect, regulating itself. That leaves local authorities with few options if TSA screening is inefficient, ineffective or weak on customer service.
TSA managers 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 between 2001 and 2011. Last year, Homeland Security investigators achieved a 95 percent success rate in smuggling mock explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints.
Can private screeners do better? The data strongly suggests they can. On safety, a classified 2007 TSA study showed private screeners detected bombs better than TSA inspectors (a result attributed to more frequent training).
In 2011, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released a report showing private screeners in San Francisco processed on average 65 percent more passengers than their TSA counterparts in Los Angeles while receiving the same wages and benefits.
It’s too late to prevent snarled security lines this summer but not to begin reforms. To start, Congress should restructure the TSA’s mission: It should set screening standards but give up its operational role. To accelerate the transition, the TSA should draw up a list of security firms pre-qualified to bid for new screening contracts.
Though no system is perfect, many passengers would argue it’s hard to do worse than the current one. For TSA, it’s time to get out of the way.