Gaping Holes in Airport Security

Airports should be allowed to test private screeners

Following last year’s terrorist attacks, two models for upgrading the quality of airport passenger screening were debated.

One would have followed Europe and Israel’s example, with the federal government setting and enforcing tough standards but with airports empowered to decide how best to meet them — either by hiring their own screening work force or hiring a federally certified security company. The other approach was a complete federal takeover of security screening.

Most U.S. airport directors (including San Diego’s) wanted the first approach, which prevailed in the House. But when the Senate adopted the latter, the two houses had to compromise.

The bill Congress passed last November created a federal airport screening work force. But after November 2004, all airports will be free to use either the feds or a federally certified security company. And over the next two years, five airports are allowed to try out this alternative, to see how well it works. San Diego applied to be one of those five airports, but was turned down.

The federal Transportation Security Administration has until Nov. 19 to hire and train 30,000 passenger screeners to staff 400 airports. As of mid-September, some screeners are in place at just 82 airports — but the agency keeps saying it is on track to meet the deadline. Many experts are skeptical, noting the high failure rate of applicants on TSA’s tests, especially in larger cities. And some have raised concerns about “abbreviated training” in TSA’s haste to meet the deadline.

Since last spring, I’ve talked with nearly two dozen airport directors, nearly all of whom prefer the European model. They worry that a large federal bureaucracy will not be flexible enough to keep pace with the dynamic airline industry.

Suppose a low-fare carrier like JetBlue comes to town with eight new flights per day. If the screening work force can’t be increased quickly, the result will be much longer lines.

Even more important, airport directors worry about quality. Security consultant Charles Slepian fears that many of the people TSA is hiring are “the same unskilled, poorly trained and inept screeners” that have been there all along and are still letting knives and guns get past them, despite now being under federal control. Although the citizenship requirement remains in place, the high-school-degree requirement was quietly dropped for those who have a year of airport work experience.

In sharp contrast, New York’s Kennedy airport proposed hiring a security firm staffed by retired law enforcement officers. These are people with many years’ experience with weapons, criminals, crowd control, explosives, etc. And along with that, the invaluable attribute of judgment.

If a city like New York can staff its airports with law enforcement officers, we should applaud them. Instead, our government says they must federalize the work force with lesser-qualified individuals. Likewise, the large number of retired military personnel in San Diego would be a viable security option — if not for the feds’ inflexible approach.

It seems like an easy fix. Even politicians see the problems, but Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, tells The Washington Post, “Everybody is afraid if they do something and there’s a terrorist attack . . . someone can point to what you did. Doing nothing is the politically smart thing to do.”

So we have politics and bureaucracy trumping security.

The TSA should give San Diego and other interested airports the opportunity to institute the best security approach for their individual facility. The TSA would then serve as overseer, providing strict guidelines and constantly auditing the airport’s security. By doing so, we would eliminate the TSA’s conflict of interest — right now it provides security and evaluate its own successes and failures.

Thirty-one of the 33 busiest airports in Europe use private security firms, overseen by government, to staff their airports. At the very least, Congress should allow San Diego and other interested airports to use private security firms for a two-year period in order to gain a true comparison of federal and private screeners.

The sooner we know what really works, the sooner we can fill the gaping holes in our airport security system.

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.