Privatize the TSA: Make Americans Safer by Letting Airports Handle Security

Any American who travels deals with the Transportation Safety Administration. The Bush administration made many mistakes in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; creating a government monopoly to handle air transportation security was one of the worst.

Government’s most important duty is protecting its citizens, but others can share that role. After all, no airport or airline wants a plane hijacking, and no airline (or railroad) passenger wants to die in a terrorist incident. 

Unfortunately, the TSA is a costly behemoth that is better at bureaucracy than safety. Created in 2001, the TSA spent $7.9 billion and employed 62,000 employees last year alone. The agency’s main job is to protect the more than 450 commercial airports, and two-thirds of the agency’s budget goes for airport screening. 

Unfortunately, as my Cato Institute colleague Chris Edwards has documented in a recent Policy Analysis, the TSA has lived down to expectations. Notes Edwards: “TSA has often made the news for its poor performance and for abusing the civil liberties of airline passengers. It has had a troubled workforce and has made numerous dubious investments.” For all the agency’s spending and effort, “TSA’s screening performance has been no better, and possibly worse, than the performance of the remaining private screeners at U.S. airports.”

The TSA has had an abundance of problems, as I listed in a Freeman column:

Wasteful spending of all sorts. “Unethical and possibly illegal activities,” according to the agency Inspector General. “Costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed” operations, according to the House oversight committee. Employee misconduct. Ranking 232 out of 240 federal agencies in job satisfaction.

Worst, though, is the TSA’s failure to do the job for which it was created: secure America’s airports and other transportation hubs. Reported Edwards, “There were 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports during TSA’s first decade, despite the agency’s huge spending and all the inconveniences imposed on passengers.” In tests, the agency failed to catch as much as three-quarters of fake explosives. 

The problem is not just operational inefficiency. The TSA doesn’t think strategically, or at least, it does not do so effectively. The agency has been criticized for failing to follow “robust risk assessment methodology” and undertaking “little or no evaluation of” program performance.

No planes have been hijacked since 9/11, but, wrote Edwards, “The safety of travelers in recent years may have more to do with the dearth of terrorists in the United States and other security layers around aviation, than with the performance of TSA airport screeners.” 

The alternative to the TSA monopoly is privatization. Entrust airport security to airports, which can integrate screening with other aspects of facility security and adjust to local circumstances. It’s not a leap into the unknown; Canadian and most European airports use private screening.

Even the 2001 legislation setting up the TSA allowed a small out for American airports. Five were allowed to go private, and another 11 have chosen to do so in the intervening 12 years. However, the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole complained that the TSA “micromanages” even private operations, “thereby making it very difficult for screening companies to innovate.”  Worse, a House oversight committee charged the agency with “a history of intimidating airport operators that express an interest in” effectively firing the TSA.

Shifting security to private operators would not eliminate problems. But expanding airport flexibility and, more important, creating security competition would encourage increased experimentation.

Americans started to innovate on that tragic September day a dozen years ago.  When passengers on the fourth hijacked flight learned what their hijackers had in store, the former ended the mission. Passengers later took down the shoe and underwear bombers. 

Obviously, dangers remain. But the best way to protect people would be to end the TSA, limiting Washington to general oversight and tasks such as intelligence activities. Travel would be safer, security would be cheaper, and Americans would be freer.