The story had just appeared in USA Today (Oct. 18th) when the first media call reached my desk. How could it possibly be, the editorial writer for another major paper asked, that checkpoint screeners missed 60% of hidden bomb materials at Chicago O'Hare and 75% at Los Angeles International–but only 20% at San Francisco International, where the screening is done by a TSA-certified private security firm? We don't know the details, I told her, but it's probably not some inherent superiority of private enterprise over government agency. After all, checkpoint screening is a mind-numbingly boring job, and the screeners have to meet the same hiring, training, and testing criteria in either case. Instead, we have to ask whether the two different institutional arrangements lead to a difference in incentives and accountability that could account for such a large difference in outcomes. And that, I suggest, is the lesson we should draw from this new information. As I told the editorial writer, the security company had to compete to get selected in the first place. And if they screw up, they can be fired–and they know it. The penalty for getting fired is not just the loss of that particular contract, but the damage to their reputation and thus to their prospects of getting more such contracts. If the TSA screws up, they just get admonished to try harder, and they stay in place. I don't begin to know all the subtle ways in which that difference in incentives and accountability translates into different styles of supervision, different motivations, and other factors that may lead to three times better performance at detecting bomb parts in carry-on luggage. But the differences seem to be real. There is also the slightly different matter of the tendency of any large organization to be defensive about its own poor performance. When Congress created the TSA, it gave the organization two conflicting roles. On one hand, it is the transportation security policy-maker/regulator. On the other hand, it is also the provider of one of the key security functions at over 400 airports: passenger and baggage screening. It's only human nature for a regulatory agency to be harder on those it regulates at arm's length than those who are part of its own family. Since Congress created this conflict of interest in the 2001 legislation that created the TSA, only Congress can fix the problem. I'm not the only one who has been making this point for the past five years. But so far, no one in Congress has taken it seriously.
Laugh or cry at airport security?
It is bad enough to be treated like a criminal every time I enter a US airport. It wold be some consolation if it were making us safer. But it is not. And the frosting on this bitter cake is we are not making us safer a great cost and inefficiency. Reason's Bob Poole has written extensively on how to redesign aviation security to acutally make us safer. Here is his comment on the latest news of TSA incompetence and the much overlooked fact that the one private security airport tested did MUCH better.