Julian over at Travel Codex picks a fight with me. He doesn’t just disagree with me over privatizing the TSA. He gets personal: “Though do you remember the Dean in “Old School”? That guy was a total jerk, right? So maybe for the purposes of today’s post we’ll think of Gary as that sort of “Dean” of Boarding Area and then it’ll be okay to argue with him and maybe egg his house or something.”
Jeremy Piven in “Old School”
Julian offers three overly simplistic – and very much incorrect – arguments.
- TSA was private before 9/11. 9/11 Bad.
Of course, when we talk about privatizing airport security screening, we’re actually talking about re-privatizing the system. And the first, best argument against private screening is to simply compare the historical record before TSA and after.
- Private companies aren’t better, they’re the same, and with the TSA at least you can complain to Congress.
- The real problem is more people are flying and we aren’t spending enough money on screeners.
He concludes, “I’m not personally against the idea of privatization, but the idea never seems to come from an evidence-based analysis, but rather just an ideological one.”
And that’s just wrong. It seems as though Julian’s own ideology prevents him from seeing the evidence of how private screeners actually perform which conflicts with his own priors.
First, recognize that TSA performance is awful. The TSA has failed to meaningfully detect dangerous items going through the checkpoint for years. Their 95% failure rate isn’t new. Ten years ago it was a 91% failure rate. So the TSA isn’t getting better.
TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: Tocqueville)
Second, TSA is actually harmful, not merely ineffective. TSA wait times create easy terrorist targets. They also push people to driving over flying which is more dangerous (a phenomenon known as ‘statistical murder’). And despite a workforce run amok they were given a union making it even harder to hold “the few bad apples” accountable, thus encouraging even more bad apples.
Julian attacks a total straw man, because I never advocated ‘a return to pre-9/11 security’. It’s almost as though he didn’t read the post he criticizes. (“Bringing in private companies to screen passengers is a good idea. But it doesn’t go far enough.”)
I argue that we should separate safety regulation from screening. The same agency shouldn’t be responsible for setting screening standards and for carrying out the screening itself. TSA as its own regulator creates conflict and it creates poor performance. The FAA is responsible for airline safety but doesn’t actually fly the planes.
Furthermore we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk. The TSA, overly responsive to Congress, sacrifices security for security theater. Even when the TSA tries to do the right thing they can’t. They wanted to focus limited resources on real threats like explosives and not on golf clubs, but politicians objected to passengers carrying on golf clubs so TSA was forced to continue looking for low risk items which trades off with a laser-like focus on things that would be more likely used in terrorist plots.
Comparing to pre-9/11 security completely ignores all the recent evidence. You do not have to look back 15 years to find private security. Pre-9/11 screeners followed the standards of the time. But thanks to the Screening Partnership Program — which the TSA and its union has fought to keep limited — we have evidence of exactly how private screening under current rules (which should themselves be improved) work.
- San Francisco and Kansas City airports have had private screeners since the creation of TSA.
- All screening in Canada is done by government-certified screening companies.
- Most large airports in Europe have government-certified screening companies manning their checkpoints.
They’re doing exactly what I recommended expanding further in the US: separating out regulation from provision of services.
A TSA commissioned study found that private screening in US airports was “as good as or better than” TSA screening.
A 2011 Congressional study compared screeners at SFO (private) with those at LAX (TSA).
Comparing private screening at SFO with TSA screening at LAX, they found that because the private SFO screeners process 65% more passengers per screener than TSA screeners at LAX, switching to private screening at LAX would require 867 fewer screeners there, at annual savings of $33 million. This study also found the screener attrition rate to be 60% greater at LAX (13.8%) than at SFO (8.7%), which also drives up costs (and may slow down lanes as newbies learn the ropes after training).
The problem isn’t that over $7 billion a year and 50,000 employees isn’t enough to screen passengers as Julian suggests (though TSA should certainly redeploy 2800 Behavior Detection Officers to the checkpoint).
Instead government provided screening is hugely inefficient. Screening companies have more staff flexibility – can staff up for peak periods “rather than having too many full-timers with nothing to do at non-peak times.” They can “match screener staffing levels to passenger traffic levels, both seasonally and during each day’s peaks and valleys.”
Contra Julian who says “For the moment, there’s really no evidence that returning to a private screening system would be any different than how things are now or how they were before the TSA was formed. So take that, Dean Gary!”
There’s plenty of evidence that:
- The TSA performs badly, has for years, and is not getting any better.
- Separating oversight from provision of services is better for security, efficiency, and customer service.
- And all we have to do to see it — not just in other elements of government activity but even directly in screening — is look at airports that have screening companies, here in the U.S., in Canada, and in Europe.