On September 11th, federal investigators found box cutters on several planes that were grounded in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. No one knows how they got there, but many experts suspect ground personnel who have access to the tarmac put them there. Baggage handlers, fuelers, caterers, and cleaners typically don’t go through metal detectors as long as they have ID badges.
In other words, Congress’ mad rush to put the government in charge of screening passengers won’t eliminate the problems that plague airport security. Before we create a new 28,000-person federal passenger-screening bureaucracy, it makes sense to look at how other countries have dealt with this problem.
Europe and Israel have a 20-year head start in dealing with serious terrorist threats and in this case we should follow their lead. Many European countries tried the federalized approach-and nearly all have abandoned it.
Instead, national governments in Europe impose tough requirements on the airports, making them solely responsible for keeping their customers safe.
Some of the airport companies (such as BAA, which runs Heathrow and Gatwick in London) employ all the security staff themselves. But most-including such high-risk airports as Amsterdam, Belfast, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Paris, and even Tel Aviv—s Ben Gurion Airport-hire private security firms to do major portions of the work, especially passenger screening. Because the airport owners are held accountable for security by their national aviation safety authorities, they insist on high levels of training and reasonable pay and benefits for the people employed by the security firms.
Ironically, the three biggest security firms in Europe—Securitas, Securicor, and ICTS-are the parent companies of the U.S. firms that provide 60 percent of all passenger screening here. Yet while turnover of European passenger screeners is less than 50 percent per year, it—s often between 100-200 percent in this country.
Why? Because you get what you pay for.
The FAA hasn’t set any standards for training or pay, despite years of pressure to do so. It does very few unannounced inspections, and issues only token fines. So it’s no wonder we’ve ended up with poorly trained, minimum-wage screeners.
Following the European model would also eliminate one of our biggest security dilemmas fragmentation. Putting the federal government in charge of passenger screening won’t do anything to limit access to the rest of the airport. The thousands of caterers, cleaners, and other workers who lack background checks or secure ID cards will still be free to roam behind the scenes at the airport.
Federal investigators have been able to breach security through employee entrances and other allegedly secure areas and gain access to the tarmac on one out of three tries. These flaws are completely ignored by the current Senate proposal. Lives depend on security throughout the airport, not just passenger screening. To ensure that kind of safety, you need a single entity to hold accountable, and that—s not what the government is proposing.
We don—t need a large new federal civil-service work force for airport security. We need a flexible, forward-looking security system. It is essential to be able to discipline and fire staffers who are either incompetent or untrustworthy. That’s very hard to do if those people are federal civil servants.
And since new technology may soon make it possible for machines to do more effective bag inspections, we also need the flexibility to reassign or retire people whose jobs are eliminated by new technology.
With the airports in charge of security, the feds could set tough performance standards and focus their attention on unannounced security checks. Just as the FAA can impose serious fines on airlines that violate safety rules, and even pull their licenses to operate, so too could it impose large fines on airports that don—t fulfill their security responsibilities.
And if fines don’t work, shut down the errant airports. If Boston’s Logan Airport or other airports continually fail to meet security requirements, the government should shut them down until sufficient improvements are made.
The United States has an airport security problem for two reasons. First, none of us realized the degree of threat posed by terrorism, so we did not make security a high enough priority. But in addition, we have less airport security than in Europe because we’re still using an obsolescent model of airport management. Federalizing airport security is not the answer. Dramatically increasing accountability of airport operators is a far better approach.
Robert W. Poole, Jr. directs the Transportation Studies Program at the Reason Foundation. He advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on ways to improve airport security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.