What the TSA Should Learn from Disney World, But Won't

Compare the lines at the Magic Kingdom with those at the Orlando International Airport and behold the advantage of free markets over government monopolies.


Anyone looking to educate voters about how the private sector works better than the government might want to consider offering trips to Disney World. Compare the company-run lines at Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park with the government-run security lines at the Orlando International Airport, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that a free market works better than a government monopoly.

On a family vacation in Florida last week, I waited in a 30-minute line to board a roller coaster called the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The time flew by. The ride's designers had taken a series of steps to make the wait less onerous than it otherwise might be. There was a sign at the beginning of the line telling me how long a wait to expect. The time listed on the sign was accurate—maybe even a few minutes high, so that by the end I was pleased that the line had moved more quickly than I expected. There were activities along the line—video games to play, kaleidoscope-projecting, gem-filled barrels to turn—to occupy impatient children and adults during the wait. The line moved through a series of different room-like spaces to give the feeling of progress. We kept walking forward in line at a relatively quick pace, again giving the impression of advancement. Upbeat music played in the background. When there was information to be conveyed about the ride ahead, it came from a sign or a recording of a calm, confident, polished voice.

The airport was a totally different story. The wait at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoint seemed designed to impose frustration rather than ease it. There was no sign telling us how long the wait was. Instead, I was handed a sheet of paper with the handwritten time I arrived, and I was told to turn the paper in when I finally reached the metal detector so that the government could find out how long the wait is. Disney knows how long its wait is and tells customers what to expect. The government has no idea how long its wait is and asks customers to help it find out.

In the government's airport security line, there were no fun activities to entertain or distract those waiting. We were, however, forced by a federal agent to surrender a tube of sunblock we had inadvertently left in our carry-on luggage—the same tube that that had been toted for days on crowded Disney rides, buses, boats and trains without posing any security threat. Instructions in the airport line were conveyed by gruff, uniformed TSA agents who appeared to be bored and frustrated to have to issue the same orders about shoes off and laptops out over and over again—work that easily could have been automated by a recording, as at Disney.

The airport security line moved excruciatingly slowly, in fits and starts. Sometimes it stopped arbitrarily as a TSA agent closed it off without explanation and allowed in passengers from another direction. When a passenger afraid of dogs panicked at a TSA canine, the agents rolled their eyes and appeared unsympathetic. I finally put my shoes back on after passing through the metal detector about 20 minutes from when I had first entered the line. It was less time than the wait for the Disney roller coaster, but it felt like much more, because Disney is great at managing line waits, while the federal government is terrible at it.

Nor is that disparity merely a coincidence. Disney is subject to the discipline of market competition and the incentive of profit. If customers have a miserable time waiting in line at the Magic Kingdom, they'll take their next vacation somewhere else instead—maybe Club Med, or Sea World, or Universal Studios. If the customers have a good time at Disney and come back or tell their friends about it, Disney will make more money, which means more profits for shareholders and a bigger compensation pool for employees and management.

The Transportation Security Administration isn't really subject to either competition or profit discipline. If customers are fed up with airport security lines, they can take a train instead, but the train company, Amtrak, is government owned. In theory, air travelers fed up with the lines could vote out the politicians who imposed the TSA and who manage it. But the politicians seem uninterested in the issue.

Perhaps one reason the politicians don't get it is that they themselves often avoid commercial air travel. It's not just Air Force One or Donald Trump's private jet. Military or private jet travel extends to officials like the FBI director and the attorney general. The FBI has not one but two Gulfstream V jets. Even Congress gets a special deal. As a senator, Hillary Clinton reportedly took more than 200 privately chartered flights. The rules allow her senate office or her campaign to pay the much lower commercial rate. When John Boehner took over as speaker of the House, he made a big show of not taking military aircraft the way Nancy Pelosi used to. But a New York Times account reported, "There was no waiting for Mr. Boehner, who was escorted around the identification-checking agents, the metal detectors and the body scanners, and whisked directly to the gate."

You don't have to be Disney to get lines right. Even restaurant chains like Cheesecake Factory and Shake Shack give customers vibrating pagers to make waits more palatable. Imagine if the TSA gave you a pager so you could shop or eat in the airport until it was your turn to make it through the metal detector.

If one valued the time passengers spent waiting at the $15 an hour that the left wants as the minimum wage, the airport security screening line would amount to real money. The only downside of improving the situation is that it would deprive free-market advocates of a good case study of how the private sector is more efficient than government. It's a sacrifice I'd be more than happy to make in exchange for a more pleasant travel experience.

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  1. You dared to try to smuggle sunblock onto an airplane? How do you live with yourself?

  2. "Compare the company-run lines at Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park with the government-run security lines at the Orlando International Airport, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that a free market works better than a government monopoly."

    The benefits of a competitive market work better *for you*, not for the competitors within that market. If Disney could ensure a monopoly so that they didn't have to move heaven and earth to keep teenyboppers entertained while they're waiting to board a ride, it almost certainly would. Disney exists for its own benefit; that it provides goods to you is largely accidental, as it has to cater to your desires to encourage voluntary trade, which enriches itself. But it would be much easier to enrich itself if it could, say, regulate every other competitor out of business or just openly destroy the business.

    Government monopoly works perfectly well because it's working directly for its own benefits rather than indirectly like Disney. The state never has to cater to you in any way at all other than preventing open rebellion or a deluge of pissy voters who might sufficiently motivate a representative that he somehow makes life unpleasant for an unelected bureaucrat. Short of that, there's no reason whatsoever for the state to make things more comfortable (or cheaper) for you.

    1. That doesn't sound right. I've been assured that we are the government, and that the Top Men (and Women) who work for the government are saints, each and every one don'tchaknow, motivated purely by the twin goals of Civil Service and Social Justice.

      Also, you know who else made people line up?

      1. Jacksonville Jaguars starting Center, Stefen Wisniewski?

    2. Hilarious.

      Disney is one of many competitors in the market. As long as the competitors perform well, they ALL benefit along with the consumer.

      And, yes, government monopoly works great to the extent that it is working for it's own benefit. Thanks for being honest about that and pointing it out. Naturally, the problem is that the government exists to provide benefits to its citizens and not itself, so the government monopoly, by definition, undermines it's goals by its very existence.

      1. One of the key insights of libertarianism is that pro-business is not pro-market. Disney does very well in competition, but self evidently it would do far better if it had no competition.

  3. "What the TSA Should Learn from Disney World, But Won't"

    Something about Mickey Mouse, right?

    1. I can hear it now, Mickey's high-pitched voice saying "Hee hee hee! Fuck you, that's why! Hee hee hee!"

      1. That South park was sooo good.

  4. Yes, but imagine the indignation from anti-government types if the TSA were to emulate Disney. "We're spending our hard-earned tax dollars on video games for airline passengers!? Just so they're less bored?"

    1. But that's another upside of the free market. When Disney spends money on improving their lines or doing something else to improve their customer experience, they are using their own money, not mine. Obviously this makes its way back to me through cost of goods, but this is different than government taxation, as if I think they are charging too much, I can simply choose not to spend my money there (forcing them to either adapt or go out of business), however with government, I have no means of choosing to simply not spend my money on this, short of outright tax evasion and breaking the law.

  5. The solution is simple: stop flying. Overnight, the TSA and it's thousands of useless union employees would be gone.

    1. To add to James_R's comment, if you don't know what a VIPR Team is, it's time to look it up.

  6. Nah, They would just set up shop on our freeways and city streets.

    1. "Nah, They would just set up shop on our freeways and city streets."

      Their unionized, so they can't be fired. Have to find something for them to do.
      Oh, remember the whacko on the french train? There ya go!

  7. This article makes no sense. The security lines at airports don't exist to get you entertained as fast as possible. They exist to keep you safe. They don't care if it takes a long time, whereas Disney cares very much about getting you out of lines fast enough to give them more of your money.

    Reason has been really losing its touch lately.

    1. Oh, it's Ira Stoll. First the ridiculous notion that Trump caused a Chinese stock collapse, and now this? Stop writing dude, it doesn't suit you.

    2. Yes but as they could be better. They aren't largely because it's run by a bunch of people that don't even have to try. Everything from the assinine array of lines to just have your boarding pass checked, to the guy who stands in front of the body scanner saying instructions over and over again so even people who already know what to do are confused, to the obligatory panic strobe that is on at every check point seemingly for no other reason than to let you know their serious; appears to be set up by someone who has never flown before.

      It is what it is because they aren't paid to be fast or even make you safer, they're there to make the week minded public say "this looks like a security line, our government is doing a good job". It's the same reason cops get bent out of shape when you exercise your rights instead of realizing that you're doing so is proof that they're doing their job

      1. You're right in saying that it could be better, but the comparison to Disney World completely invalidates everything Stoll is trying to say. This isn't going to change anyone's mind who doesn't already hate the TSA and how it's set up.

    3. you're not actually arguing with the article. the point IS that airport lines dont exist to get you entertained as fast as possible, whereas in a voluntary transaction it's in everybody's interest to make your experience as pleasant as possible. free markets work the best to align the interests of everyone involved

      1. But on it's surface it's ridiculous to expect the TSA to make things as pleasant as possible. They exist to be thorough in their mission to keep airlines safe. Now yes, it's ridiculous how thorough people often think they need to be, but it's ridiculous to want it to be pleasant. It's trying to catch criminals, not entertain them.

        1. We could try to use reasoned arguments in a loving effort to bring you around, but I don't think that's what you're here for. Let's keep it simple:

          Fuck off, Slaver.

          1. Nice ad hominem homeslice.

            You realize I'm here as a Reason reader, right? I hate the TSA as much as you guys, but we need to use arguments that actually make sense, or the people who hate libertarianism make a good point when they call us nutjobs.

        2. well i doubt disney wants anything violent happening there (it wouldnt be great for business), but they also have to think about keeping their customers happy, as they don't have a force based monopoly. and i don't at all expect tsa workers to want things to pleasant; why would they care? again, that's the point

          1. the consequences for disney having a terrorist attack vs a jet getting hijacked would necessarily be far greater for disney. at a minimum, their business would drop off and in the extreme, theme parks might all go out of business.

            in contrast, a terrorist that got through the tsa would INCREASE the power of the TSA and government as the public demanded they do more to prevent it from happening again.

        3. Well, consider this comparison instead: the security lines run by the TSA at the airports to the security lines run by private concert security at, say, L.A. Live.

          L.A. Live's line runs people through metal detectors and is fast, smooth and efficient. No, they weren't there to entertain people, but they knew that people were there for the entertainment, so they kept the security checks quick. The lines were long when I was there last but moved very quickly.

          With the TSA, it's almost like they don't care if you make it to your plane at all. But the private security at L.A. Live knows that without the concert venue at the end of the lines, they have no paid work to do.

          I could point to the security checks at Coachella Music Festival too. They have really improved over the years, every year introducing some improvement to keep the car and pedestrian traffic moving quickly while keeping drugs, weapons, and non-ticket-holders out. Again, they know where their bread is buttered. Surprisingly, a lot of the outside-the-venue security is provided by the local police operating in their usual gov't capacity, so it does not necessarily have to be a private police force. It's that the public police force outside was working towards the same goal as the private security inside: get the people who are supposed to be inside inside as fast as possible and keep the bad stuff and bad people out.

        4. What if airports were privately owned and they could compete with one another for your business?

          Maybe LaGuardia's lines are better than JFK's? Maybe JFK now lets you play video games in line.

          It's a bit of a silly article because we are so far removed from having air travel be a private function and not a public accommodation, but consider the question I posed above.

          The only current remedy is to pay the fine, er, fee for TSA Pre-Check ($125) and avoid such things.

    4. "They exist to keep you safe."

      No, they don't. Perhaps on some level at the very beginning this was so. Now, it is simply to show lots of stuff is being done.

      Anyway, why would that matter? Does their stated purpose mean they can treat everyone like cattle? Don't you see where this leads?

      No...apparently, you don't.

    5. "[The security lines] exist to keep you safe." And all along I thought that it is the screenings that keep us safe, and the long lines and rude behavior of TSA agents are just an unnecessary by-product of who was doing the screening.

  8. The Transport Sozialist Arbeiterpartei is only trying to keep Richard Nixon's Operation Intercept going, and I'm sure his motives were good.

  9. Start working at home with Google! It's by-far the best job I've had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,


  10. This would be an excellent test of the premise of this article:

    Have two entrances to one airport terminal.

    One is run by a private security firm. The other is run by the TSA.

    Same product/service: the airline is the same for both entrances. All other things are equal because it's the same terminal. The private security firm is rewarded for higher traffic flow and penalized for failure (letting weapons, contraband, and dangerous persons through). Testing is done by an independent third party that tries to sneak bad things through.

    See who wins the competition. It's not going to be like every single person goes over to the private security line, because, obviously, if the line for the TSA entrance were empty, some people would leave the private security line to take advantage of the availability of the TSA line. So there would be some consistent ratio between the two. And the competition would actually lead the TSA line to improve, because they would be being shown up in a highly public way.

    One could say that the compensation model for the private firm is unfair; but that is precisely the point. The TSA gets paid now regardless of quantity or quality. It gets paid like a monopoly because gov't IS a monopoly.

    1. While not at the same airport as you suggest, we can already see this at SFO as they are the only large airport in the U.S. that uses private screeners and they do a better job in less time.

      Stossel covers this in depth starting at the 2:30 mark. http://youtu.be/h6BbowVpcFo

  11. In fairness, Disney uses (or at least it did a few years ago) a very similar method to determine how long their lines are. The only difference is that the devices given to track the time at Disney are electronic instead of paper.

    1. Yeah, this article was terrible top to bottom

  12. Why can't each airline hire their own security or each airport offer their own security and the airlines pay a fee?

    Why are airports owned by cities anyways? Why can't those be private too?

  13. This article misses the point. Instead of focusing on line times and how great the experience is, he should be focusing on Disney World's security. Disney uses private security and has a sheriff's office onsite.

    Magic Kingdom alone has 19 million visitors per year and you don't ever hear about a terrorist attack there. If you combine all the parks, then that number is 51.4 million, which if they were an airport, would put them at the 20th busiest in the world.

    Yet no attacks on those parks except for a handful of guest altercations.

  14. Imagine if the TSA gave you a pager so you could shop or eat in the airport until it was your turn to make it through the metal detector.

    Congratulations on the stupidest idea of the day

  15. Come on now Ira. You're certainly old enough to remember airport security checkpoints before 9/11 and the advent if the TSA. Other than the extra measures they put us through now to make us all feel better, they're not much different then they were before when private contractors ran the show. The airport security sucked then and it sucks now (and it also tends to suck everywhere, not just in the United States). I'm sorry but this dog won't hunt.

    1. There is at least one country where they take airport security very seriously and did even pre 9/11 - ever tried to catch a flight in Israel? As far as I could tell at the time, that wasn't security theater, that was real, no kidding, security.

  16. While I agree the private sector would do better than the TSA at line management I don't think it's fair to compare them to getting on a ride at Disney World. First, they have different chokepoints. At Disney World the chokepoint is when guests move into the ride. Slower moving guests could delay ride departure but it's a fairly automated process. A secondary chokepoint is the cast member that is assigning seats, but they have a system of distribution that takes less time than ride interval.

    The chokepoint for a security check is different. It is individualized as it involves an agent taking time to observe an x-ray of a bag's contents. There is a large amount in variation based on what is packed and how it is packed that affects the time spent per bag. A secondary chokepoint is the passenger preparing their belongings to be scanned. A passenger with shoes, a suitcase, and personal bag will take longer than one with sandals and no bags.

    Dallas H. posted a link to a segment by John Stossel that more accurately compares the TSA versus private sector (SFO). For me the most important difference is the level of training and motivation (competition and reward) of private sector employees.

    I travel often and the biggest problem I've noticed is a lack of staff. It's frustrating to wait in a long line and see half of the scanners not being used. As for staff friendliness, I think some of the rudeness is location based as I always meet friendly agents at airports in Hawai'i.

    1. The obvious solution is to provide different levels of service to those with different needs. Have a fast lane for those traveling without carry on luggage, for example. We could all come up with some good ideas but the governmental approach is to treat every situation the same.

  17. Just about everyone travels, fills out tax forms, occasionally visits the DMV, and goes to the post office. Yet, when faced with a 'problem' that needs solving, an alarmingly large percentage of the population are happy to let the gov't be the service provider.

  18. Wow, there's a lot of love in this room.

    I think several of you are confusing making a serious, thought out and specific suggestion with throwing out a "for example", perhaps seat-of-the-pants idea.

    I also think that the article was valid and fairly well on point. It was to point out the ridiculousness of TSA's current user-hostile system and get one thinking if maybe there could be a better way.

    Maybe attacking rather than critiquing is not a great way of fostering new ideas?

  19. Let's say you're a mid level government manager and your customers aren't necessarily happy but they're not storming the building with pitchforks, either.

    You have two choices:
    1) Try something new that might make things worse but that might also make things a lot better for your customers. If it works, you get nothing, but if it doesn't, you might lose your job.

    2) Do nothing different and keep your job.

  20. Everyone is missing the point.

    Government interaction is supposed to be frustrating, inefficient, implacable, opaque, impenetrable, non-intuitive, un appealable and possibly even counter-productive.

    Why? You are being trained to do what ever the government says without question pause. The less it makes sense the better the training.

  21. You don't bring in tons of luggage to Disney, which is already the destination. After they check your bags, you're home free. The lines might move fast at rides because there's no further inspections there.

    I say "might", because the waiting time at popular rides at Disneyland (not world) is well over an hour. The line rooms don't really distract you from all the waiting time, because it's sssooooo long.

    I see the author's point, but Disneyland lines and what happens at TSA is apples and oranges.

  22. So let me get this straight here. Ira is upset that he isn't being entertained enough while waiting in the security line in the airport? Is this an Onion.com style story? If it is then I'm the idiot with no sense of humor and I'll own that. But if it's not, and Ira is seriously complaining that the TSA is a failure in comparison to Disney because they don't provide shiny objects to look at whilst waiting... then ... seriously, I'm actually embarrassed for you Ira, but probably not as much as your editor. Look, Ira, this is what you do when in the security line at the airport: stand there, STFU and make sure you have your shoes off and your ID/Passport and ticket ready so we can all get to our destination and THAT'S ALL YOU NEED TO WORRY ABOUT! What are you six? It's not about YOU Ira (typical conservative mindset, not libertarian mind you).

    1. If your comments are honest, then you're really the one who should feel embarrassed.

  23. A minor quibble, but Disney parks also enlist patrons in figuring out how long their lines are taking. They will periodically choose a random customer at the start of the line and hand them a bright red RFID card and ask them to hand it over to the ride operator just before boarding. I am assuming this card is scanned at the beginning and the end and the time fed into their system. So yeah, they do it too, but they're nicer and fancier about it.

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