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Answer to Airport Security Found in Europe

European countries tried and abandoned federalized approach

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.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.