Commentary

Bad News as TSA Takes Control

Airport operators want alternatives to TSA

Federal airport-security screeners are on the job at JFK, but is that a good thing? JFK’s old screeners ranked among the best at spotting weapons in undercover security checks before the feds took over. And the agency managing the new screeners, the Transportation Security Administration, is a mess.

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta recently fired the top man at TSA, but he’s still laying the blame for the agency’s woes on Congress and its reluctance to write TSA a blank check. But instead of just forking over more money, Congress should snatch this opportunity to go back and fix the airport-security law.

After all, Congress has already approved $3.8 billion in extra funding – so that the TSA’s budget now exceeds the FBI’s. But Mineta says he needs even more cash.

Remember, TSA is only responsible for passenger and baggage screening – the airports themselves are still responsible for securing the other crucial parts of the airport. Nevertheless, TSA estimates they’ll need over 60,000 employees, up from the original 28,000.

Those screeners are all supposed to be in place at the nation’s 429 airports by mid-November. But TSA has so far hired and trained only a few thousand.

Once that deadline is missed, the TSA will also fail to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for screening all checked baggage for explosives. Airports face multimillion-dollar construction projects just to house the minivan-sized explosive-detection machines. Denver International aviation manager Bruce Baumgartner tells Time magazine, “I can have either machines or people in my terminal. I can’t fit both.” The image of people waiting outside in the snow while their bags are searched makes the airlines shiver and could severely cripple the already struggling industry.

Baumgartner and 38 other airport operators saw enough problems with the system that they stuck their necks out and signed a letter to Mineta asking him to reconsider deadlines. Taking a public stance like that can be career suicide. These officials are in the trenches and they aren’t saying the current legislation is bad because it is inconvenient or expensive; they are speaking out because it isn’t improving security.

A few elected officials have heard the cries for help. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla), Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) pushed for an extension of the baggage-screening deadline.

But deadlines are just part of the problem. The machines that TSA purchased to screen luggage give false positives, or miss explosives entirely, more than 30 percent of the time. And they’re agonizingly slow, scanning just 150-200 bags per hour under real-world conditions.

Salt Lake City International Airport used the TSA’s explosive-trace-detection machines during the 2002 Winter Olympics and averaged a paltry 76 bags per hour – a number that would bring U.S. air travel to a stop.

There are better, faster, cheaper machines available. But, in typical fashion, our government has yet to approve the most reliable and quickest screening machines now used in Europe’s airports. So instead, we are buying untrustworthy, expensive machines to meet a self-imposed deadline.

If TSA had a clue, they’d look to England for help. After the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, England instituted a baggage-screening program (and implemented it over eight years – not one year, as we’re trying to do).

The three main London airports use automated X-ray machines as preliminary screening devices for most travelers. The machines scan 1,200 to 1,500 bags per hour and flag about 30 percent of the bags as suspicious. That 30 percent is routed to another machine, where an operator reviews the image on a screen. About 3 percent of those bags are then put through an explosives-detection system.

England’s system also focuses on high-risk passengers and their bags. The luggage of those deemed high-risk by the computer system or gate workers is sent directly to the explosive-detecting machines.

Experience tells us that grandma, traveling with two grandkids, is infinitely less likely to be packing explosives than the 20-something Middle Eastern male traveling alone on a one-way ticket bought with cash. To spend equal time examining their bags, as our system now requires, is simply insane.

We know a lot more about airport security than we did on Sept. 11. As we approach the one-year anniversary of that tragic day, we should put that knowledge to use and fix the obvious holes in the system by focusing on high-risk passengers, implementing a trusted traveler program, and investing in the best technology available.

Or we can cross our fingers and hope another group of terrorists doesn’t show us that we’ve spent billions of dollars trying to meet random deadlines and failed to secure our airports in the process.

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.

Aviation

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.