News » Op-Eds

Should Airport Screening Be Conducted by Private Security?

Atlanta Journal Constitution

February 21, 2011

By John L. Mica

YES: Sixteen airports use a private model, with success and lower costs.

The most important consideration relating to airport passenger screening is which Transportation Security Administration model performs best. From covert testing, anecdotal information and independent evaluation, utilizing private screening professionals under federal regulation and oversight is a better security option.

TSA’s decision to halt this model is incomprehensible. I intend to launch a full investigation of this action, which subverts the intent of the law.

In helping create TSA, I worked to establish two models for passenger screening. It was clearly Congress’ objective that the federal government be responsible for setting security standards under both models. In addition to the all-federal model, five airports were selected and continue to operate under the private-federal model, with TSA-certified contractors under federal supervision and regulation.

Previous testing of both models determined that private operator screening performed statistically better than or equivalent to the all-federal model. The law provided that, two years after creation of TSA, other airports could opt for the private-federal screening structure.

TSA has evolved into a bureaucratic, ineffective passenger screening hassle. Instead of focusing on setting standards and auditing performance, TSA must manage a huge work force that has mushroomed from 16,500 to nearly 63,000. Its massive Washington headquarters supports 3,776 administrative personnel, earning on average $105,000 per year.

Protecting its turf, the agency continues to thwart adoption of the better model, now denying airport applications to opt out.

Despite this obstructionism, 16 airports have performed well for years under the better screening model. Over the past year, a growing number of airports have applied to or are considering opting out.

Misstatements of facts relating to TSA and private screening model are scare tactics. No one advocates converting TSA into a private company or returning to pre-9/11 security. No one advocates “McDonald’s wages” for screeners. TSA sets minimum wage levels under both models, and in many cases private screeners have better pay, benefits and working conditions.

All TSA screeners can join a union, and private sector screeners have better collective bargaining options.

Some claim that the private-federal model costs more. In fact, this model is often less costly, and if we eliminated excessive, duplicative staffing required by TSA, we could save significant taxpayer dollars.

This unwieldy bureaucracy can never succeed when it acts as security operator, and administrator, regulator and auditor. TSA must be reformed to help it refocus on identifying and evaluating risks, instituting regulations, and auditing and adjusting performance.

Unfortunately, TSA has rarely deployed assets to properly deter terrorist plots. The shoe bomber was foiled by a damp fuse and alert passengers. The liquid bomb plot was uncovered by British intelligence. The underwear bomber was stopped by a defective device, crew and passengers. The cargo package plot was discovered by Saudi intelligence. The Times Square bomber ordered his cash-purchased ticket on his way to JFK and was then apprehended by Customs and Border Protection.

TSA must get out of the human resources business and refocus its mission on security and better coordination of intelligence.

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