Free Minds & Free Markets

Shutdown-Induced Bottlenecks at Nation's Airports Shows Folly of Letting the Federal Government Run Things

Farming out airport security and air traffic control would help to immunize air travel from the Congressional budget chaos.

ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/REUTERS/NewscomELIJAH NOUVELAGE/REUTERS/NewscomThe federal government has been partially shut down now for 32 days, and nowhere is feeling the strain quite like the nation's airports, where tens of thousands of essential federal employees are required to show up to work regardless of whether they're getting paid.

On Monday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that 10 percent of its agents were absent from their posts, up from three percent in the same time period last year. Agents are reportedly playing hooky to work jobs that actually pay them.

The result has been longer wait times, closed security checkpoints, and collapsing morale among those still on the job. Headlines are filled with stories of TSA agents relying on donations of free food or playing explicit, uncensored rap music at checkpoints.

Holding it together only slightly better are the nation's air traffic controllers, some 10,500 of whom have been working without pay and without the aid the 3,000 "non-essential" support staff during the shutdown.

So far absenteeism has not been a problem, says Jim Marinitti, an air traffic controller and vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the controllers' union. The longer the shutdown drags, the more likely these controllers will start looking for an exit, he says.

"The workforce stayed strong through the first paycheck. Now facing a second missed paycheck, the reports are coming that people are looking elsewhere," says Marinitti. "Nearly 20 percent of our workforce is eligible to retire, there's no incentive for them to stay."

The shutdown has also resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—who operates the country's air traffic control system—closing its academy for air traffic controllers, the effects of which will reverberate long after the shutdown is over says Marinitti.

While it's difficult to feel any sympathy at all for the professional privacy violators at the TSA, the fact that vital air traffic controllers are not getting paid is concerning to say the least. It's also an unfortunate consequence of federalizing so much of crucial airport operations, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation expert at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website).

The immediate problem with this, says Feigenbaum, is that these functions are funded on a discretionary basis, meaning Congress has to approve funding every year.

"If there's not a budget, or if there's a government shutdown—and we have both right now—those folks are not going to get paid," Feigenbaum tells Reason, saying that spinning off these programs from direct federal control would eliminate a lot of the pain a shutdown imposes on both workers and travelers.

There are already a number of airports in the country that have contracted out their passenger screenings to private companies through the TSA's Screening Partnership Program (SPP), helping to immunize them from the effects of the shutdown.

This includes San Francisco International Airport (the busiest airport to participate in the SPP program), where some 1,200 privately employed security screeners have continued to be paid despite all the budget drama in Washington.

According to Feigenbaum, more airports could easily jump on the bandwagon, and contract out their security screening services, although federal regulations ensure that the most noxious parts of airport security, from groin pat-downs to requirements to remove your shoes are the same at SPP airports.

Spinning off air traffic control operations to a separate, nonprofit entity would be much harder to achieve. A bill to do just that was rejected by the last Republican-controlled Congress, despite the explicit support of both the House Transportation Committee Chairman and President Donald Trump. Changes of a similar reform passing anytime soon are highly unlikely.

In addition to the instability that comes with making airport security and air traffic control federally-provided services, Feigenbaum says there is an inherent conflict of interest too: the same agencies that are responsible for providing the service, are also expected to provide oversight.

"The regulatory side of the TSA screeners is going to have a tendency to go easy on the operations side of the TSA screeners. The question is if there is accuracy there," says Feigenbaum, noting that it is a similar problem with the FAA, which runs air traffic control and is also the nation's top aviation safety regulator.

If the shutdown drags on for much longer, problems at America's airports will only worsen. More and more TSA agents will stop showing up to work, while air traffic controllers might opt for retirement or leaving their profession altogether.

Contracting out these services would ensure that they don't come to a screeching halt every time the government shuts down. Putting that distance between the government and security and safety services would also improve oversight and—at least in the case of air traffic control—improve efficiency by making the adoption of new technology easier.

And while these changes are not something that will happen overnight, it's a nice thing to think about while you're in a 45 minute security line at the airport.


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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    About the TSA wait times: The chart below is based on TSA's official estimated waiting times list for Atlanta airport.

    The World's busiest airport has wait time through security of 15 minutes.

    If the Aorld's busiest airport can do it, so can tiny airports.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    But yeah, privatize security.

  • Echospinner||

    On a good day the wait time there is longer than that unless you have one of those fast track tickets. I don't buy those numbers.

  • Olga||

    In no other democratic and modern country would a government shutdown happen. If the parties could not agree, there would be a "no confidence vote" and new elections. The government on the basic functional level would be funded and keeping going on and politics would not shutdown basic services.

    Now we can debate if private security or federal security at airports makes sense. Before 9/11 we had private security. TSA was created with the purpose of creating a more professional security force. They are no better than the private companies because we are not training them to be better. We focus too much on luggage and not enough on psychology. Israel has government security agents. You can move quickly through their airport, not taking off shoes or jackets and you keep your water bottle. However, you will have a significant conversation with 3 or 4 security officers along the way. So if we are going to have government security agents, then they need to be highly trained and paid and they need the security that politics would prevent them from getting a paycheck.

    However, if all we are going to allow security to do if check bags and impose silly rules, then might as well go back to the private companies.

  • Longtobefree||

    a few minor points:
    The no confidence vote may sustain the current government. So the situation remains static.
    If the government fails, the new government (maybe) is still 10 of more weeks away, because new elections are required. And those damn fool voters may vote for the current party. So the situation remains static.
    Refer to Brexit.
    the Israeli model does not scale up to the volume of travelers in the USA.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Yeah, imagine the horror of conducting and completing political campaigns in 10 weeks! What would all the consultants, and fund raisers, and media do the rest of the year?

    And while the same parties or factions might be re-elected, we could exclude any current office holders from the next ballot or two.

  • Bubba Jones||

    In a parliamentary system, Nancy Pelosi would have unchecked power.

    I am a bit confused as to why they can designate "essential" employees must remain on duty, but they can't provide a mechanism to pay these "essential" employees.

  • Ron||

    especially since the representatives are still getting paid

  • JesseAz||

    Part of the contract federal employees signed when taking a federal job. What's confusing about it?

  • Brian||

    I hear that Venezuela's government is still functioning, thank god.

  • DrZ||

    If Venezuela can do it, so can we! ¡Se puede!

  • Benitacanova||

    I flew internationally recently. The security wait wasn't too bad leaving. The wait at customs on the way in was the problem. They had no separate line for citizens. One hour plus of shuffling through the maze with the dregs of the planet.. Just. So. Wrong.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Now you know how residents of America's successful, modern communities feel about sharing a country with Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Wyoming, South Carolina, Tennessee, etc.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    If it's one thing Arthur L. Hicklib hates, it's safe white communities and rural African-Americans.

  • GroundTruth||

    " Farming out airport security and air traffic control would help to immunize air travel from the Congressional budget chaos"

    Uh, I think the chaos is a feature, not a bug.

  • DaveSs||


    If the government shuts down and no one ever notices, people could possibly begin wondering why its performing certain tasks to begin with and maybe get some traction for eliminating those tasks. That of course is anathema to leviathan.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Shutdown-Induced Bottlenecks at Nation's Airports Shows Folly of Letting the Federal Government Run Things

    No, it shows the genius of it.

    Allow me to retort...

    I create a Federal Office of Bathroom Passes. No one anywhere is allowed to go potty unless they receive a bathroom pass from my office. People grumble and complain at first, but eventually, like so many other government expansions, they settle in and accept their place in the Compliance Culture.

    Then after everyone is nice and comfortable with the process of getting their bathroom passes every time they hear the Call of Nature, *bam* government shutdown. Now the Federal Office of Bathroom Passes has a cardboard sign on the door that says, "Will B back after shtdown".

    No one in America actually GOES to the bathroom without their pass. Oh no, that would be anarchy. So there becomes a massive pause-- a backup if you will-- while people hold it, waiting for the shutdown to end. Now the Media and the Federal Government point to this catastrophe of soiled pants and painful bladders and declare, "See how much America NEEDS this so-called non-essential Federal Office?"

  • Rob Misek||

    Yes, we'd be far safer farming national security out to the lowest bidder.

    I think the Russians would be interested.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Like we did from the beginning of time to 2001?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Shit. Don't even farm it out at a federal level. Let airports handle it.

  • Echospinner||

    So we need to protect ourselves from the government program designed to protect ourselves from ourselves.

    Sounds typical.

  • Ron||

    when ever the government shuts down it should be legal to proceed with out those regulations as if there were none as before they were created. when will smart people see that. I wish the TSA would all just quite I bet the airlines would suddenly supply their own so that business could continue and we would see how teh TSA isn't needed as it wasn't before

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm curious how distributed this is. Is it just a few major airports that are fucked or is it spread out?

    I say this, because I was suprised how easy the airport was to get through this weekend. And so I feel like I dodged a bullet.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Want to see a government worker (regardless of level) wet their pants?
    Say the word, "privatization" to them.

  • Cthulunotmyfriend||

    True. But this article makes too much sense. So, let's continue to do the opposite.
    Roll a die.
    1) That's what's fair!
    2) That's the way we've been doing it, why change?
    3) The government is always the most efficient institution to complete any task...
    4) The people working Airports like being compelled to work without pay..
    5) If we privatize airport seciutiry, airtraffic control, etc., private businesses might to a better job for less money and have happier employees, but then that business might make money themselves, and we can't have that!
    6) Elvis said we should do it this way

  • ElvisIsReal||

    #6 is the winner.

  • Hell Hound||

    Move the Coast Guard back to the Armed Forces. Privatize everything else or eliminate non-essential.

  • DonC||

    Remember, TSA has not stopped a single terrorist.
    It is absurd for the Government to engage in services private companies do themselves; however, be careful of how you privatize. Here in Virginia, the State decided to 'privatize' liquor sales from a State run ABC. They created a 'private corporation', loaded the board with cronies, reduced work for peons, force "Managers" into 12 hour days and inserted a layer of cronies as regional managers. Most stores are staffed with 1 person.

  • ThomasW||

    The problem is that the "private" TSA didn't stop terrorists (9/11).

    If you privatize the TSA again then the next terrorist attack can be blamed on corporate greed (paying unqualified screeners minimum wage) again. Leave it under the government, though I'm sure they'll figure out how to blame corporations if another terrorist attack happens on the TSA's watch.

  • Hell Hound||

    Yea it would be great for the government to run healthcare, until there is a total shutdown. Wouldn't that be fun?


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online