Airport Security: Let airports take over

Government shouldn't be regulator and provider

Baggage and passenger screening should be shifted to individual airports, with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) retaining regulatory control. Airports would be free to use TSA-certified screening companies or to hire TSA-trained screeners. This devolution – having the federal government delegate these duties – makes sense for at least four reasons.

  • Today, the TSA is both the regulator and the provider of some airport security functions. A regulator cannot fairly regulate itself; it must be at arm’s length from those it regulates. In Europe, which has decades more experience dealing with terrorism, the responsibility for all airport security is placed at the airport level, with government oversight.
  • Second, TSA’s screening operations are highly centralized in Washington. Allocation of screeners to individual airports takes place only once a year. But airlines continually change routes and service levels. From month to month, the number of passengers who need screening may fluctuate by 15%, 20% or more. Much of the time, TSA provides either too few or too many screeners, wasting taxpayer money and travelers’ time.
  • Third, making airports responsible for screening – as they already are for access control, perimeter security and other functions – would lead to a more integrated security system. Staff could be cross-trained and shifted among functions, reducing boredom and enhancing skills.
  • Fourth, if airports got the money TSA now spends on screening, they could easily finance the transition to better technology, such as faster, more efficient in-line explosive detection systems to screen checked baggage. Airports could get the large, high-tech scanners out of ticket lobbies and make them part of the conveyor systems that carry baggage to airplanes. That would reduce the number of required baggage screeners by one-half or more, according to Government Accountability Office studies. The freed-up funds could beef up other aspects of security.

Congress overreacted in creating a costly, inflexible, centralized system for airport screening. The crucial need is for high standards, rigorously enforced. Those did not exist prior to 9/11- but now that we have them, we should let each airport secure its premises, with TSA holding it accountable.

Robert Poole is director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Foundation.