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.