Get the Government Out of Airport Screening

The TSA's conflicts of interest prevent better, cheaper security

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, governments across the world increased airport security, and rightly so. But in a hasty overreaction to that tragic day, Congress gave the job of screening passengers and baggage to a new federal agency: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As a result, taxpayers pay for more than 48,000 airport security screeners and TSA has requested nearly $8.2 billion in funding for 2011.

Creating the massive bureaucracy was a mistake. Even though the quality of airport screening was low before Sept. 11, it was not a failure of the "rent-a-guard" screeners that let those 19 terrorists board planes "armed" with box cutters. Those "weapons" were perfectly legal at the time. The real failure was one of policy, which didn't make use of passenger history and law enforcement information that should have flagged most of the terrorists as suspicious characters who warranted enhanced scrutiny.

Even with today's bloated TSA, that problem still exists. Consider that our various intelligence agencies failed to share vital information, and a suspected terrorist, the underwear bomber, was allowed to board—and tried to blow up—an international flight bound for Detroit on Christmas. Thankfully, the Obama administration last week took some needed steps to help fix this problem.

Following Sept. 11, most other countries increased their standards for airport security by letting each airport implement its own procedures under government supervision. In Europe, that led to nearly all major airports hiring certified private security firms to do their screening. Canada created a new federal agency to implement better screening but outsourced the actual screening. This kind of high-performance contracting permits better training and airport-specific flexibility (e.g., higher pay scales in Canada's jobs-rich oil patch) and it better matches screener numbers to changing travel patterns and airport passenger levels.

In contrast, the system Congress and the George W. Bush administration created came with a massive conflict of interest: TSA serves as both the aviation-security regulator and the provider of key security. Who's watching the watchmen? When it comes to baggage and passenger screening, TSA is regulating itself. As with any bureaucracy, its natural incentive is to hide errors and make itself look good. In addition to the obvious conflict of interest, this also makes for fragmented airport security.

Consider that airport perimeters, air cargo and other aspects of security are not operated and managed by TSA, but by airports. This lack of cohesion can create security gaps. In Europe, each airport is directly responsible for every aspect of its security, under strict government oversight.

The other mistake of the Bush administration and Congress was to let general taxpayers get stuck with well more than half the cost of airport security. Canada's security ticket tax pays for 100 percent of airport security. In most European countries, a combination of airport charges to airlines and security taxes on tickets covers the complete cost of airport security.

Those who object to making airlines and passengers pay the full cost will argue that protecting against terrorism is like national defense, for which everyone properly pays via general taxes. However, many taxpayers never fly, and numerous others rarely fly. Airlines and frequent travelers like me get far more benefits from aviation security, and we should be paying the costs.

So now what?

First, TSA should be divested of its airport screening duties. TSA should regulate and oversee security, but each airport should be responsible for all aspects of its security (passenger and baggage screening, perimeter security, etc). Airports would be free to hire their own security forces or contract with TSA-certified firms.

Second, the cost of airport security should be paid for by those who use airports: a combination of airlines and passengers. This change would cut billions from the federal budget, eliminating the large portion of airport security costs not covered by current airport or airline security taxes. It also would make the costs of airport security more visible to airlines and travelers.

If these two changes are made, they will put much-needed scrutiny on the expensive, one-size-fits-all airport screening procedures in place now. Giving airports control over their security and moving to a more risk-based approach to passenger screening might well cut the cost of airport screening in half. It also would focus more attention on high-risk passengers like those we should have spotted on Sept. 11.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at the Reason Foundation. He advised members of Congress and the White House on airport security following the Sept. 11 attacks. This article originally appeared in The Washington Times.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Good article. TSA is an example of government at its worst. You had a panic in the aftermath of 9-11 combined with the ever present desire by congress to steal.

  • ||

    Come on guys. If we are goign to train the population to react to authority in the proper way then we have to start somewhere. People would just all of a sudden hand over their papers and submit their pregnant wives up for searches and hand over their contact lense fluid at any time any place. If we are going to create a good prison planet we have to do it slowly.

    Now we can sned our righthand puppets in to propose "privatising" these government serivces...of course the contracts will just go to our companies that hire the same workers....but this will make republicans feel like they are winning...or we can have the democrat puppets expalin the need for higher paid workers....win/win...either way we get our slave state as this thing of beauty spreads.

  • ||

    Norman Mailer once said he believed the United States, in its endless pursuit of war and domination, had entered a "pre-fascist era." Mailer seemed tentative, as if trying to warn about something even he could not quite define. "Fascism" is not right, for it invokes lazy historical precedents, conjuring yet again the iconography of German and Italian repression. On the other hand, American authoritarianism, as the cultural critic Henry Giroux pointed out recently, is "more nuance, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent."

  • Edwin||

    touche

    +1

  • ||

    Yeap.. another good article from reason.com

    TSA is totally a failure.. we need to get rid of them.. they are just a big burden on America..Nothing more..

    Big-Booty-porn

  • Pip||

    Barney Frank has enemies, even 30,000 feet in the air.

    Flying back to Boston from LA yesterday, the congressman was assailed by a pair of ophthalmologists upset about the health care reform bill. An argument ensued that prompted some passengers to wonder if the plane might be forced to land.

    "No one was calming things down and people were standing up shouting," said Brooke Sexton, who was seated seven rows behind Barney.

    Accustomed as he is to being conservatives's favorite bad guy, Frank mostly ignored the doctors's taunts, Sexton said, but the congressman's partner, Jim Ready, did not.

    http://www.boston.com/ae/celeb.....altit.html

  • The Gobbler||

    His partner is named Mister Ready?

    Too funny!

  • P. Nutgallery||

    Yep, Jim "Rough'n" Ready.

  • ||

    Accustomed as he is to being conservatives's favorite bad guy, Frank mostly ignored the doctors's taunts

    Bullshit. Pelosi's much more hatred.

  • DADIODADDY||

    no no I hate Ried more than these 2 clowns put together

  • ||

    Valid point.

  • ||

    Can't we all just hate them all equally? You know, with a burning passion?

  • T||

    I'm with Epi. I got plenty of hate to go around.

  • Warty||

    Normal people can't hate as much as we can, Epi. It causes spontaneous combustion when they try.

  • ||

    It's because they are lazy. When I ask them "Did you working on hating today?" and I just get a blank look, I know they really aren't trying.

  • ||

    TRY HARDER

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    That's what Barney says to Mr. Ready.

  • ||

    Nancy "Stretch" Pelosi flies in a USAF provided airliner (think it's a Boeing 737), because she is special (3rd in line to the presidency). No silly little business jet for Madame Speaker. She took this plane to Copenhagen for the conference on Global Warming IIRC.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Great, now this asshole is just going to request chartered air travel at taxpayer expense.

  • Joel||

    I'm honestly shocked that he flies commercial at all. It's not the way I would have guessed.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Good. Barney needs a dose of reality. Fucking politicians think they're better than we peasants, glad to see one of 'em taken down a notch.

  • ||

    The total fucktitude of the TSA was so foreseeable, it can't be considered an "unintended consequence". We must conclude that long delays, warrantless invasive searches of persons, papers, and effects, and crippling of the air travel industry was the desired goal.

  • Rich||

    Warren, what's magic about the TSA? Analogous, um, consequences are pervasive.

  • ||

    The total fucktitude of the TSA was so foreseeable, it can't be considered an "unintended consequence".

    Quoth the Iron Law:

    Foreseeable consequences are not unintended.

  • Warty||

    I liked my haiku from the other day:

    So unexpected
    Some adverse consequences
    Rain falls in the woods

  • ||

    Would that be #7? Because it's not on my list.

  • ||

    I think it was proposed, and is hereby formally ratified.

    The complete list:

    1. You get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.
    2. Money and power will always find each other.
    3. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
    4. The less you know about something, the easier it looks.
    5. You aren’t free unless you are free to be wrong.
    6. Me today, you tomorrow.
    7. Foreseeable consequences are not unintended.

    Currently in the Drafting Committee:

    It can always get worse.

  • ||

    RC, are the Iron Laws enumerated anywhere?

  • ||

    Ignore that. Didn't read downthread before asking. D'oh!

  • Edwin||

    "Forseeable consequences are not unintended"

    Gonna have to disagree with that one, at least in the context it's being used. Most Americans, and especially politicians, actually do expect and believe that all government agencies can/do perform well. And at the very least they believe they can be changed to perform well. In general, a lot of people simply do not grasp the intention/actual-consequence dichotomy; that's how so many people get swayed into liberalism.

  • monkeyman||

    TSA = another government welfare program for those too stupid to recite "would you like fries with that?"

  • ||

    This is what happens when you let poor people fly on airplanes.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Yo! Fuck the TSA!

    Inspired by Xeones.

  • Rich||

    However, many taxpayers never fly, and numerous others rarely fly. Airlines and frequent travelers like me get far more benefits from aviation security, and we should be paying the costs.

    Sheesh, Bob, next you'll be arguing for road privatization!

  • ||

    No but higher road taxes and carbon taxes on cars in order to reduce the portion payed by all taxpayers would be a step in the right direction.

  • Tim||

    You know what would fix TSA? Unionization...

  • Ed Schultz, Rush of the Left||

    Only union workers can do the TSA job well.

    For that matter, only union workers can do any job well. Fuck those non-union workers, they're all scum.

  • Xeones||

    Yo! Bring me flabby cougars, with whom i may have shame-ridden, inebriated intercourse!

    (Inspired by Naga Sadow)

  • Naga Sadow||

    Shame? What is this "shame" that you speak of?

  • ||

    Naga only wants the thin cougars, the ones that have a flat belly, but still look like someone threw up under their skin.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Lights out and that problem goes away.

  • Warty||

    If you feel shame while you're doing the fucking, you're doing something very right.

  • ||

    Shame and revulsion, Warty. Those plus contempt, and you have the fucking trifecta.

  • Warty||

    Oh, I've hit the trifecta many a time. For best results, the contempt should be at least as much for yourself as for the swamp-beast whose snizz you're using.

  • Safety Nazi||

    Safety Nazi here to remind you to remove the cat's teeth before pouring gravy on the genital areas.

  • Some Guy||

    I thought the TSA (at least the screeners/machines) were already paid by user fees? WTF else is that "9/11 security fee" for, then?

  • ||

    TSA is like any other bureaucracy. It has long since gone beyond any reasonable iteration of its original purpose. Think COL Kurtz out in the jungle.

  • ||

    http://www.lukefisher.com/you.wav

  • ||

    I remember when I was with TSA--it seems a thousand centuries ago--we went into an airport to secure it. The passengers. We left the airport after we had screened the passengers for guns and knives, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back to the security checkpoit, and the minimum wage screeners had come and thrown away every bottle of liquid. There they were in a pile--a pile of of shampoo containers over three ounces. And I remember...I...I...I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized--like I was shot...like I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, "My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that." Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that--these were not monsters, these were men, trained screeeners, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love--that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to screen without feeling, without passion, without judgment--without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.
  • Warty||

    The horror...the horror.

  • ||

    the congressman was assailed by a pair of ophthalmologists upset about the health care reform bill

    Come on, that wasn't Barney's fault.

    I would have spent the entire flight motherfucking him about Fannie and Freddie. And Timmay.

  • Barney F.||

    Don't blame me, it was Bush's fault!

  • Brian Defferding||

    My flight from Milwaukee to New York was delayed partially because of a "security issue" at LA's airport (the plane we were to board was the one coming in from LA), in which the TSA shut down a gate for three hours. I am going to make a guess from the thousands of incidents where the federal government overreacts to law-abiding travelers that this incident was probably someone sneaking in some cocoa or something in their carry-on bags and the feds went apeshit. So they switch to another plane that just landed, which still needed an hour to clean; then when our delayed plane arrived in NY, the gate was occupied and we sat on the tarmac for another thirty minutes.

    Easiest way to increase customer service in the airline industry: get rid of federal government presence on security. Due to the pattern of overreaction to trivial matters and the consistent idea of "err on the side of safety", flights are delayed and/or canceled, or at least everybody has to wait longer to get to their destination.

  • T||

    So, the TSA is working out exactly as well as some of us predicted. Glad to hear it.

    Me and Cassandra will be over there, drinking heavily, if you'd like to come join us.

  • ||

    It's 8:11 am in Hawaii, and I'm at work, so drinking heavily isn't quite on the agenda -- but thanks for the offer!

  • Scotch Hamilton||

    I like the idea of farming out airport security to a for-profit corporation...I'm sure the guy making $7/hour is going to really check those bags for weapons very closely...

  • T||

    You're right, that TSA drone doesn't check the bags very carefully.

  • Solanum||

    Daniel, why did you come back? For this garbage? Your trolling isn't funny or thought provoking. It's just hackneyed. Now quietly wander off somewhere and die a slow, miserable death.

  • Scotch's Conscience||

    I'm the inner voice, but if I could speak out loud, I'd tell the world what a shitheel I really am.

  • Steff||

    Man, the TSA is the pits. There are rampant stories of theft, mistreatment and everything else, and nothing ever comes of this. I'd rather risk, frankly, the one in a million chance of being blown up than dealing with them every time.

  • ||

    Oh least it go unremarked. Check out the winners of the Caption Contest at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Playmobi.....ewpoints=1

  • ||

    I'm going to hold back a bit here, in case there's some keiki online whose tender eyes might be injured by the full monty of how I feel:

    Fuck the TSA. Pitchforks and tar and feathers is not good enough for these bastards.

  • ||

    Let's see:

    1) I was subjected to terrorist screening -- pat downs with arms outspread, then run through the bomb testing equipment that hit me with puffs of air to see if I was carrying plastic explosives -- because my driver's license had expired.

    2) I was pulled over for the pat down thing because I was carrying a national magazine that had the word "Islam" on big letters on the cover, and I gave the screener stinkeye.

    3) My lugguge was pulled out and held up for three days, with most everything I needed for daily living, because I was carrying home about 20 pounds of spices from New Orleans, and apparently the TSA thought I was carrying drugs or bombs or both.

    And I don't even have brown skin or look Mideastern. I can only imagine how shabbily such suspects are treated by our prison guards in the TSA.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    If the national magazine was Newsweek, you deserved to be pulled over.

  • Cynic||

    Well, the TSA can be replaced by private security after we have been issued our biometric national ID card and we won't be able to buy a plane ticket without scanning the cards and our biometrics.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    And to think people laugh at the Biblical 666 on the hand or forehead...

  • Colonel_Angus||

    The fucking airports ought to be sold outright to the private sector, with an end to the airport and airline subsidies. Let the market work out desired security policies. The whole fucking transportation industry needs a market correction.

  • T||

    Preach it, brother!

  • Steff||

    Amen and pass me some of that good stuff.

  • ||

    There are some cases where I prefer having the gov't involved, especially when FOIA might be useful. If the private TSA decides to violate some woman's privacy (or whatever) what could you do about it? They'd have a government contract and would be untouchable by the invisible hand until that expired. In that case, the only difference between the TSA and a private screener is FOIA and more accountability.

    I guess if you want to bump it down to state and local authorities, that could work.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Just get rid of the government contract part. Private guards would be more accountable for things like assault, and the consumers would have more power in responding to bad security policies.

  • kinnath||

    No government contract. The airlines would provide security at their own gates or subcontract with someone else to do it. Maintaining security is no different that maintaining the aircraft itself.

  • ||

    """and more accountability.""

    What makes you think they will not have some sort of immunity?

  • ¢||

    And I don't even have brown skin or look Mideastern. I can only imagine how shabbily such suspects are treated by our prison guards in the TSA.

    I'm easily mistakable for "some kinda Arab or something." Male air security guys tough-face me a lot (because they're short), and female ones seem to want me to try some shifty shit so they can call in dudes to shoot me, but that's typical cop behavior. Since I don't do anything interesting while I'm in line, it never escalates. And I'm the only person on earth with my name, so I'm not accidentally on any suspect-character search lists.

    Pre-TSA, I got "randomly" over-scrutinized at the airport more than I do now. That's probably a coincidence. Some people get hassled more now. But overall, I doubt the TSA goons are any worse than the other goons were. They're the same goons, aren't they? Mostly. They just get paid more now.

  • ||

    But overall, I doubt the TSA goons are any worse than the other goons were. They're the same goons, aren't they?

    No, the TSA is much more obnoxious than the screeners we had pre-9/11, based on my interactions with them.

    The TSA is much less accountable. If a private airport screener acts badly, you can protest to the airport. If the TSA acts badly, you gotta take it up with goons in DC.

  • ||

    Your not going to get the government out of airport screening. At best you will have a private entity having to live by the same rules and probably procedures.

  • Scotch Hamilton||

    Here's an idea: let's start calling the Federal Government "United States, Inc." and suddenly everybody here is happy!

  • Warty||

    Try harder next time, Dan.

  • kinnath||

    Just shut up, you stupid cunt.

  • barfman||

    *barf*

    *barf*

    *baaaarrrrrrrrfffff*

  • Scotch's Conscience||

    Did I mention how much of a shitheel I am? Man, someone should just punch my face in. I really deserve it.

  • Chris||

    TSA: Inconveniencing Everyone. Protecting No one.

  • ||

    My husband flew from Denver's DIA to Moscow, Russia DME. Not one of his bags were even glanced at. However, the TSA dingbat was upset because he had never seen the travel passport issued to Russian citizens returning after their passport expired. It took quite a while to explain that perhaps he was to far down on the information food chain to be directly informed by Moscow.
    What was so sad was a man from a Soviet system being given the run around by the TSA because of his "papers". The humor was lost on one powerful idiot while the crowd was laughing at the irony or it all.
    Welcome to the USSA!

  • ||

    TSA = Thousands Standing Around

  • ||

    Flying immediately after 9/11 with an engineering colleague. We headed for home from Detroit on an early flight. He dressed in ‘yachtsman garb’, casual deck shoes, with nice leather case, hat with birdie pendants, etc. & I with my coat and old Samsonite briefcase (half weapon half bullet resistant) and wearing one of my collection of hats signed with: Southern New Mexico Machine Gun Competition. Before us in line was a nice family, mother and her 4 young daughters all dressed up with little back packs, stuffed toys, teddy bears, etc. They get side tracked, frisked and wanded and my ‘Ivy League’ compatriot gets the third degree also. I get wave onboard. My friend is astounded. I offered to loan him on of my ‘Machine Gun’ hats for future travel. I suggested to him that they left me alone for sound reasons, pointing to the wording on the hat.

  • ||

    Why not make the crew actually flying responsible for safety? Their lives are at stake too so they'll probably do a good job. Let them use whatever methods they deem necessary. Passengers could then choose between carriers with full-body screening and those that just profile.

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  • ||

    Thanks for the comparison with other countries.
    It is interesting in particular to notice that European countries, often derided on this side of the Atlantic for their Big Gvts, has a more market oriented approach to the problem.

  • TruthOffering||

    The government screws up everything they touch. How about education!? Talk about a conflict of interest! The easiest way to dumb down a society is to propagandize and brainwash from early in life.

    You guys might enjoy this article about just that:

    http://www.truthoffering.com/p.....ments.html

  • ||

    As much as I agree there are problems in public education, your belief that there is an intentional desire to dumb down the population is pure paranoia.

  • ||

    The TSA is, first and last, A Bureaucratic Agencies. Like all of the genre, it's major intent and energies are directed toward it's continued existence and growth.

    Any other considerations or results awe a second thought, if they rise to that level of consideration.

  • ||

    I disagree w/ most of your comments because they are factually incorret. As a former employee of TSA I know what is required to maintain the level of training and testing necessary to protect the flying public. You do not.
    The airport, carriers, cities, and stockholders would NEVER submit to that tremendous cost! Your level of security as a frequent flyer would drop
    to unexceptable levels and you would have additional planes falling from the sky. Your promoting such an idea endangers the lives of the flying and non-flying public.

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  • Tampa Security Systems||

    TSA have a difficult task as it is and just a few bad apples makes the experience unbearable of everyone else. I try my best to avoid Airports if I can.

  • ||

    This is what happens when you let poor people fly on airplanes.
    Fat People

  • Aviation Security||

    Great read. The TSA does need to be reformed, and I agree that it would better serve us as a regulatory body, allowing the airports themselves (with the airlines and passengers supplementing, of course) pay for the actual guards to do the regulating.

  • naruto shippuden epsiodes||

    I disagree w/ most of your comments because they are factually incorret. As a former employee of TSA I know what is required to maintain the level of training and testing necessary to protect the flying public. You do not.

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  • Civil War Spies||

    We can see how strict the security in airport is. It is one of the precautionary measures that government do to avoid the attacks of terrorism. They do after on the safety of the people on the place.

  • Nick||

    Yeap.. another good article from reason.com

    TSA is totally a failure.. we need to get rid of them.. they are just a big burden on America..Nothing more..

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  • whalen tv stand||

    Easiest way to boost customer service within the airline sector: get rid of authorities presence in security. Because of the pattern involving overreaction to trivial matters as well as the consistent concept of "err on the side of safety", travel arrangements are delayed and/or canceled, or at least everybody has got to wait longer to get to their destination.

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