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Reason Foundation

Improving Airport Passenger Screening

Robert Poole
September 1, 2002

Executive Summary

The Aviation & Transportation Security Act calls for the federal government to provide passenger and baggage screening at all but five of the nation’s 429 commercial-service airports as of November 19, 2002. The other five will opt out of direct federal passenger screening by hiring a qualified private security firm for this purpose. After a two-year period of direct federal provision, all other airports will then be allowed to opt out by choosing a government-certified security firm instead.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is having serious difficulty in recruiting and training enough screening personnel to meet the November 19th deadline. This policy study calls for a significant expansion of the opt-out pilot program, which could significantly aid in getting enough trained screeners in place when and where they are needed. It also calls for rethinking the TSA’s direct provider role after November 2004, once the new workforce has been hired, trained, and put in place at all airports.

There are two immediate reasons to expand the opt-out pilot program. First, a sample size of just 1 percent of the nation’s airports is meaningless, especially with only one airport in each of five security categories. Good (or bad) results could well be the result of chance. The sample size should be at least 10 percent, which means 40+ airports should be allowed to opt out.

Second, expanding the pilot program would be a major help to the TSA. Under current law, the TSA is supposed to have 33,000 passenger screeners hired and trained by Nov. 19, 2002 and 21,600 checkedbaggage screeners by Dec. 31, 2002―a monumental task. There is evidence that airports handling up to 25 percent of all originating passengers are interested in opting out. This evidence comes from the fact that 19 airports applied for the five original slots in the pilot program, and also from interviews with airport directors carried out by Reason Foundation for this study.

Airport directors cite a number of reasons for wanting to opt out of TSA-provided screening. One of the most important is to increase the quality of airport screening. New York’s JFK International, for example, proposed hiring a security company staffed by former law enforcement officers. Another reason is to permit greater staffing flexibility. The airline business is very dynamic, with airlines adding and dropping service at airports on short notice. Existing Customs and Immigration workforces have difficulty adjusting to these ups and downs. Since passenger and baggage screening workforces affect all passengers (rather than only international ones), the impact on passenger processing of improperly sized screening workforces would be very much greater. Other potential benefits include ending up with a more uniform, less-fragmented security system (everything under the control of the airport), and the provision of better customer service. These factors have all been observed in the European approach to airport security, which follows this model of direct service provision by the airport and its contractors, rather than by a national government security workforce.

The European model also draws a much clearer line between service provision, on the one hand, and the setting and enforcement of performance standards on the other. The TSA’s current charter mixes these roles, rather than putting the TSA at arm’s length from security providers, as in the European model.

Congress has an opportunity to address these problems in easing the TSA’s immediate hiring and training burden. Short term fine-tuning could include:

Congress should also begin addressing the TSA’s longer term role after the two-year period of federal service provision. The European experience suggests that best results are achieved via a unified approach, under which the airport director has day-to-day control over the provision of all security services: passenger and baggage screening, access control, perimeter control, etc. The airport’s security system interfaces with various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as appropriate. And all parts of the system operate under strong, arm's-length oversight from a national government agency.

Adapting this model to U.S. airports would call for shifting the TSA’s role, after 2004, from direct provision of screening services to a role that is primarily standard-setting and regulatory oversight. The two-year period 2003-2004 would then be seen as the time for the TSA to develop and fine-tune standards and procedures and to recruit, train, and provide initial work experience for a new, higher quality airport screening workforce. That workforce would eventually go to work for airports either directly, as employees, or indirectly, as the employees of qualified screening contractors hired by airports, post-2004.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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