After Another Failure, Time to Privatize TSA

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has another failure on its hands. In recent tests, undercover investigators smuggled mock explosives and banned weapons through U.S. airport checkpoints 96 percent of the time. According to ABC, “In one case, agents failed to detect a fake explosive taped to an agent’s back, even after performing a pat down that was prompted after the agent set off the magnetometer alarm.”

The unionized TSA has a history of inept management. Reports in 2012 by various House committees found that TSA operations are “costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed,” and the agency “suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement.” Former TSA chief Kip Hawley argued in an op-ed that the agency is “hopelessly bureaucratic.” And in 2014, former acting TSA chief Kenneth Kaspirin said that TSA has “a toxic culture” with “terrible” morale.

TSA has a penchant for wasting money on useless activities, leaving it less to spend on things that benefit travelers, such as more screening stations. A GAO report, for example, found that TSA continues to spend $200 million a year on a program to spot terrorists by their suspicious behaviors — yet the program does not work.

Perhaps most importantly, studies have found that TSA security performance is no better, and possibly worse, than private-sector screening, which is allowed at a handful of U.S. airports. I list some of the studies here.

The solution is to dismantle TSA and move responsibility for screening operations to the nation’s airports. The government would continue to oversee aviation safety, but airports would be free to contract out screening to expert aviation security firms. Such a reform would end TSA’s conflict of interest stemming from both operating airport screening and overseeing it.

Private airport screening is a successful approach used by other nations. All major airports in Canada use private screening firms, as do about three quarters of Europe’s major airports. That practice creates a more efficient security structure, and allows governments to focus on aviation intelligence and oversight.

Over a decade of experience has shown that the nationalization of airport screening under the Bush administration was a mistake. Let’s learn from reforms abroad, and bring in the private sector to boost the quality of our aviation security system.

For more on TSA’s failures and reform options, see here.