TSA Blocks Private Screeners Despite Success and Good Reasons to Outsource Airport Security

After the close of business last Friday, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole announced that no more airports will be permitted to participate in the congressionally authorized program under which all U.S. airports are allowed to have passenger and baggage screening performed by TSA-certified private security firms instead of TSA’s own federal workforce.

“Shortly after beginning as TSA Administrator, I directed a full review of TSA policies with the goal of helping the agency evolve into a more agile, high-performing organization that can meet the security threats of today and the future,” Pistole said. “As part of that review, I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time.”

This decision is bad news for airports, air travelers, and for effective airport security.

In fact, the opt-out program should be expanded, not frozen, for at least five good reasons.

First, privatized screening is at least as effective as TSA-provided screening. A detailed assessment commissioned by TSA in 2007 (but never released) compared screening performance at six outsourced airports and six comparable TSA-screened airports, using four years worth of data, and four measures of screener effectiveness. Performance results of the certified security firms were “equal to or better than those delivered” by the TSA screeners. The only reason we know this study even exists is because the Government Accountability Office blew the whistle on TSA in a 2009 report (GAO-09-27R).

Second, the security firms have much greater flexibility to ensure that the right number of screeners are on the job at each hour of the day, day of the week, and month of the year. Airlines are a very dynamic business, continually adding and dropping flights, adjusting schedules, and (sometimes) going out of business. TSA is constrained by its own bureaucracy, civil service rules, and (probably soon) union work rules. So all too often it has either too many or too few screeners on duty at each specific airport. Too many means wasting taxpayer money; too few means lines longer than they should be, needlessly wasting travelers’ time.

Third, wider use of certified security firms might produce budgetary savings. The 2007 comparative study found that based on the way TSA keeps the books, outsourced screening appears to be 9% more costly than TSA-provided screening. But the GAO points out that TSA’s cost accounting leaves out things like workers’ compensation, general liability insurance, and some retirement costs which are still paid for by federal taxpayers but are not included in TSA’s budget. In addition, current federal law requires certified security firms to pay exactly the same salary and benefits to their screeners as TSA pays, even in parts of the country where the cost of living is low and qualified people would be willing to work for less.

Fourth, airports that operate with certified security firms (like San Francisco and Kansas City) are full of praise for the quality of service provided by their motivated employees and managers. This probably stems from the companies’ understanding that if they don’t provide good service, their contracts can be terminated or not renewed. And individual screeners know that if they have a bad attitude toward passengers or perform poorly on screening tests, they can be terminated—something much harder to do today at TSA and likely to be even harder in the near future if screeners are unionized.

Finally, screening should be outsourced to remove TSA’s egregious conflict of interest. This single agency is both the aviation security regulator and the provider of the largest portion of airport security (in terms of staff and budget): passenger and baggage screening. Consequently, when TSA reviews the security performance of airlines, airports, freight forwarders, etc., it is dealing with them objectively, at arm’s length. But when TSA reviews the performance of passenger and baggage screeners, it is reviewing the work of its own staff. And its incentive there, like any other bureaucracy, is to make its own people look good. Case in point: the 2007 comparative study which TSA commissioned from Catapult Consultants and then suppressed because it did not like its results.

No major European country handles airport security this way. Each makes and enforces aviation security policy at the national level, with individual airports responsible for providing functions such as passenger screening. Those airports either hire their own screening staff or contract with certified security firms. Canada created a new agency for airport security after 9/11, but the agency contracts with certified security companies for all airport screening.

This year is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and also the 10th anniversary of the ill-advised bipartisan law that created the TSA. It is past time for Congress to revisit and reform its creation. High on the agenda of TSA reform should be removing the conflict of interest that makes TSA both the aviation security regulator and the operator of airport screening.