Until recently, relatively few Americans living outside the Washington, D.C., metro area were affected by the government shutdown. That number, however, has grown since Jan. 11, as people wait longer in airport security lines because of unpaid Transportation Security Agency screeners not showing up to work.
And while most TSA employees continue working, many understandably are anxious about how long it will be until they are paid again.
However, the question we should be asking is, Why are airport security workers federal government employees in the first place? Private firms employed by airports could provide comparable, or better, passenger screening for lower costs and would be less subject to the whims of a government that can’t seem to stay open for more than a few consecutive years.
From its inception, the Reason Foundation says, TSA has been “the agency that establishes transportation security policy and regulates those that provide transportation operations and infrastructure.” But as long as it also supplies airport screening, it must regulate itself, and self-regulation does not work very well.
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Every round-trip airline passenger in the United States pays an $11.20 security fee. Although it is now being paid as a tax to the government, it would make more sense to pay the fee directly to private firms that could supplant TSA and employ most of the same workers to keep the skies safe.
TSA provides all security screening at more than 450 commercial airports in the United States. In 22 airports, however, it has contracted with private firms to screen passengers through the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). Research shows that these private firms can screen passengers just as effectively and often at lower cost.
Unfortunately, TSA has rejected most airports’ applications to engage SPP based on questionable analyses that tend to underestimate TSA screening costs.
Private screening is not a fanciful idea. Canada and many European countries rely on private companies to screen passengers at airports. In Canada, the cost of screening each traveler is about 15 percent lower than in the United States. If TSA were adding a level of safety, it would be a different story, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Congress created the agency after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Before that, security screening was done by private firms paid for by airports and airlines and overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. Prior to the passage of the Homeland Security Act, there was a debate about whether screeners should even be employees of the federal government. Proponents argued that government employees would do a better job, but today the evidence suggests TSA is not doing its job as well as it could.
A study released in 2015 revealed it failed 95 percent of undercover tests to smuggle mock explosives or weapons past checkpoints. There are a number of other advantages to having airport screening performed by private firms rather than directly by TSA.
A problematic government employee working for TSA who mistreats passengers is difficult to fire. Security expert Justin Hienz, however, notes that SPP screeners can be fired immediately if they “insult someone, infringe on their rights or treat them less than fairly.”
Instead of centralized decisions made in Washington, private firms would have more flexibility to set staffing levels appropriate to each particular airport and vary them over time. In its role as airport screener, TSA has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment and procedures that do not pass a cost-benefit test. Private firms that have to rely on passenger security fees for all their revenue would be much more concerned about cost effectiveness while still being held accountable for safety.
Whatever the outcome of the government shutdown, there is no reason why it should affect the workers who conduct valuable security screening at airports. Employing private firms would yield numerous other benefits to the traveling public.
Tracy C. Miller is a senior policy research editor with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Tribune News Service