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A Townhall article provides and insightful and informed case for privatizing TSA to reduce costs and improve service. A few excerpts from this well constructed piece follows.
End the TSA – Townhall Magazine | May 05, 2014
Air travel has become a frustrating and intrusive bore. In the May issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, Chris Edwards explains how we can put the fun back in flying by bringing freedom to the skies.
In discussing one of her main achievements as British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher said, “privatization is at the center of any program of reclaiming territory for freedom.” One area where Britain reclaimed a lot of freedom is aviation. Since the 1980s, that nation has privatized airlines, airports, air traffic control, and in some cases airport security screening.
Unfortunately, the privatization revolution in aviation has not yet spread to the United States. We’ve always had private airlines, but the rest of our aviation system is run by the government. The Transportation Security Administration runs airport screening, while the Federal Aviation Administration runs air traffic control. Our commercial airports are generally owned by state and local governments.
But U.S. aviation is too important to leave to government. It is a giant industry that serves 740 million travelers every year and provides a crucial service to every other industry. Aviation will keep on growing, but it will need ever more complex systems to keep up with rising demands and increased international competition. Our government aviation bureaucracies are not up to the challenge.
A Bureaucratic Nightmare
Let’s look at TSA. The agency was created in a rush after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Congress and the George W. Bush administration moved rashly to nationalize airport security screening without appreciating the downsides of a government takeover.
TSA’s main activity is operating passenger and baggage screening at the nation’s 450 or so commercial airports. It has an annual budget of $8 billion and more than 60,000 employees. About 85 percent of the employees are airport screeners.
One workforce problem has been substantial employee theft from passenger baggage. Another problem has been a rash of incidents at airports where workers are found not following security procedures. Mica calls these episodes TSA “meltdowns.”
The TSA is no better at managing investments than it is at managing its workforce. TSA has spent billions of dollars on programs that have shown few benefits:
TSA spent $30 million on 207 “puffer” machines to detect explosives. But the machines did not work and had to be shelved.
TSA spends more than $200 million a year on the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program to catch terrorists from suspicious behaviors in airports. But TSA has not caught any terrorists with SPOT, and the GAO found in 2013 that there was no “scientifically validated evidence” for the program.
TSA spends more than $240 million a year to operate Advanced Imaging Technology or full- body scanning machines at major airports. The machines are costly, cause airport congestion, and have dubious detection benefits. They can detect high-density objects, but are less effective with low-density materials such as gels, powders, and liquids. Another problem is that terrorists could evade the machines by boarding planes at smaller U.S. airports or foreign airports.
TSA spends about $1 billion a year on the Federal Air Marshal Service, which places about 5,000 armed agents on about 5 percent of all U.S. flights. The program has resulted in relatively few arrests usually for minor offences, and no arrests related to terrorism.
Security experts, such as Mark Stewart and John Mueller, have criticized TSA for not allocating its resources based on detailed risk assessments. And TSA tends to proceed with expensive projects, such as the AIT machines and the SPOT program, before it even completes cost-benefit analyses to see whether they are worthwhile.
Private Sector Does It Better
Despite all of TSA’s spending on technology and its huge workforce, the agency’s performance has been underwhelming. In 2005, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security concluded: “The ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of [private] screeners prior to September 11, 2001.”
Over the years, auditors have been able to do head-to-head comparisons of federal vs. private airport screening because 16 U.S. airports have been allowed to use private contractors. Here are some of the comparison results:
• A 2004 study by a consulting firm for TSA found that private screeners performed as good or better than TSA screeners.
• A 2005 study by GAO found that private screeners did a better job than TSA screeners.
• A 2007 study by a consulting firm for TSA found that “private screeners performed at a level that was equal to or greater than that of federal” screeners.
A 2007 USA Today investigation found that the private screeners at San Francisco International Airport had better detection abilities than the federal screeners at Los Angeles International Airport.
• A 2008 TSA study compared screening at six private-screening airports with six federal-screening airports and found the performance to be similar.
A 2012 study by GAO compared 16 private-screening airports with federal-screening airports on four performance measures. It found that the private screeners performed better on some measures, while federal screeners performed better on others.
A Threat to Civil Liberties
Last, but not least, are civil liberties issues. TSA has problems with “mission creep,” sometimes acting as if it had broad police powers outside of its transportation security role. TSA’s practices have pushed at the boundaries of permissible searches and seizures, and the intrusiveness of TSA pat-downs are infamous. Some reported incidents of TSA pat-downs of children, the disabled, the elderly, and people with medical conditions have been appalling. Private screening firms would have a greater incentive to stay within legal bounds and to treat people with respect.
So we should move responsibility for screening operations out of the hands of the federal government and to the nation’s airports. The airports could then hire expert screening companies and pay for those services through charges on airport users. If security companies did not achieve high-quality screening results, then airports could fire them.