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Commentary

Government Has Botched Airline Security, So Why Not Let the Airlines Do the Job?


     
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Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is expected to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January, is reminding managers of America’s largest airports that the Transportation Security Administration is not the only acceptable provider of security services.

That’s good. The TSA has become the poster child of heavy-handed big government at its worst: arrogant, inefficient, in your face (and now, it appears, even in your pants).

With the agency’s occasional performance lapses and tarnished reputation, this might be a good time for airports to seek alternatives, such as partnering with the airlines for security screening.

Delegating security responsibilities to the private sector could accomplish two goals: improve safety and provide the cash-strapped airlines with an additional source of revenues. The key to any plan’s success, however, is to align incentives with outcomes.

One of the main problems with TSA is that the agency, as an arm of government, suffers few consequences when things go wrong — that is, if an airliner is hijacked, if body-scan imaging is found to cause cancer or if scanned images show up on the Internet.

Lack of accountability makes TSA and its employees “irresponsible” in the truest sense of that word. So it comes as no surprise that TSA management’s knee-jerk response to criticism is defiance.

Commercial airlines, on the other hand, would have much to lose if security were under their control and one of their planes crashed because of a security failure.

Moreover, if airport check-ins were a paid service, as baggage fees are now, customers would have incentives to push back against the airlines if their screening practices were like TSA’s intrusive, unthinking pestering.

Many passengers could opt for different carriers; some could opt for alternative airports.

To deter security threats as efficiently as possible, airlines could ally themselves with data-mining services, such as Hank Asher’s TLO, to clear passengers and issue IDs that would, in essence, put them through a security checkpoint “fast lane” and avoid the nonsense of being treated as terrorists until proved otherwise.

For those who might doubt the ability of the private sector to handle airport security and passenger screening, it is worth recalling that Asher — by himself — used his software and databases to identify most of the 9/11 terrorists within days of the attack, while official agencies were still arguing about turf and sharing sensitive information.

The San Francisco airport has employed a private contractor to screen boarding passengers for many years because TSA salaries were noncompetitive in the Bay Area labor market and because the private contractor offered more flexibility in staffing checkpoints during peak travel times.

On TSA’s watch, lines at some airports have become so long that passengers are advised to arrive two hours before their scheduled departure time for domestic flights and three hours before international flights.

To avoid being perceived as singling out passengers belonging to certain ethnic groups, adhering to a particular religious faith, or originating from countries known to harbor terrorist groups, TSA, as a matter of policy, badgers everyone, requiring all boarding passengers to remove their shoes, pass through metal detectors and, now, suffer the humiliation of virtual strip searches.

(It is a wonder that, after the 2009 Christmas incident at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, TSA didn’t start asking people to remove their underwear.)

While TSA seems intent upon continuing its “show” of false security, rather than engaging in efforts, such as individual profiling, that would enhance security, the airlines could move in the opposite direction. Provided that screeners do not reveal the criteria they use to identify higher-risk passengers, profiling has the advantage of focusing security efforts on the greatest risks.

If the airports and airlines were responsible for security, they could prescreen passengers and charge them a modest fee, say $20, to pass through security seamlessly.

That way, everybody would win: The airlines would have a new revenue stream, passengers who pose no risk could board planes with less harassment and fewer delays, resources could be directed at genuine threats and, perhaps best of all, TSA might be put out of business.
William F. Shughart II is a Research Director and Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University, and editor of the Independent Institute book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.

Michael T. Belongia is the Orth Smith Professor of Economics at the University of Mississippi.






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