Millions of Americans have learned to dread going to the airport. An unfortunate combination of surging passenger volumes and declining numbers of screeners have led to security lines that can average over an hour in length. Thousands of passengers are missing flights daily. Meanwhile, airports and airlines nationwide are struggling to contain passenger anger. In desperation last week, one leading U.S. airline trade group asked passengers to troll the Transportation Security Administration by tweeting of long lines with the hashtag #ihatethewait.
While no doubt satisfying, such stunts aren’t going to speed up security checks before the upcoming summer travel rush. This problem has been years in the making. To solve it, the government may have to get the TSA out of the screening business altogether.
The idea is neither new nor outlandish. Canada and most Western European countries employ private contractors to screen passengers. Before the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. did as well. The Federal Aviation Administration set security standards and guidelines but allowed individual airports to choose the companies responsible for doing the actual screening.
Obviously, the system missed the 9/11 hijackers. (That said, the federal government didn’t specifically ban box cutters from flights back then, so screeners had little reason to search for them.) Even after federalizing airport security, though, the TSA allowed five U.S. airports, including San Francisco International, to opt out and continue using private contractors. Today, under the Screening Partnership Program, 21 U.S. airports employ their own screeners.
Why would an airport want to go through the trouble of hiring and supervising its own contractors? Flexibility, for starters. Under TSA rules, airports need to obtain federal permission if they want to adjust the number of TSA screeners on-site. The process is time-consuming and makes it hard for airports to ramp up staffing during peak periods. Worse, if the TSA wants to hire more inspectors, it needs to go back to Congress for the funding, with uncertain results.
There’s a strong efficiency argument as well. Under the current system, the TSA both sets the rules for airport security and enforces them. In effect, the agency regulates itself. Local authorities have few if any means to seek redress if TSA screening proves inefficient, ineffective or weak on customer service. Firing a contractor is easy; firing a unionized government employee much less so.
TSA managers themselves have little professional incentive to fix problems. The resulting culture of mediocrity has real safety consequences. The TSA’s own studies found 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports between 2001 and 2011. Last year, Homeland Security investigators achieved a 95 percent success rate in smuggling mock explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints.
Are private screeners able to do better? Despite longstanding efforts by the TSA to keep such comparisons out of the public eye, the data strongly suggests they are. On safety, a classified 2007 TSA study showed private screeners were better able to detect bombs than TSA inspectors (a result attributed to more frequent training).
In 2011, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also released a report showing that private screeners in San Francisco were more efficient than their TSA counterparts in Los Angeles, processing an average of 65 percent more passengers while receiving the same wages and benefits. Among the possible explanations cited were higher employee retention rates in San Francisco. Indeed, subsequent government hearings have found persistently low morale at TSA — due, among other reasons, to a persistent culture of “fear and distrust” at the agency.
At this point, it’s too late to prevent snarled security lines over the summer. But that’s no reason to delay reforms. To start, Congress should restructure the TSA’s mission: The agency should set standards but give up its operational role in screening. To accelerate the transition, the TSA should draw up a list of pre-qualified security firms that will be allowed to bid for new contracts to screen passengers.
Though no system is perfect, many passengers would argue it’s hard to do worse than the current one. For TSA, it’s time to get out of the way.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.