Commentary

The Case against Federalizing Airport Security

Would you feel safer if the security personnel at Disney World were federal government employees? Probably not, because the private companies that service Disney World and most other attractions have been doing a fine job. The amount of crime at such places is minimal, and most people correctly perceive their person and property as being perfectly safe.

The Senate has just passed a bill that would require all airport security personnel to be federal employees. Does this make any sense? If the security personnel at Boston, Newark and Dulles airports had been federal employees, would the terrorists acts of September 11 been averted? The answer is almost certainly no, because up to that date it was not illegal to carry a box cutter on an airplane.

Those who advocate federalizing the airport security personnel claim that we will be safer if the workers are paid more and are better trained. Let’s assume this assertion is true. But now ask, is it necessary that they be federal employees?

Consider what would likely happen if the feds took over the airport security function. With civil service protections, it would be very difficult to fire any of them. Hence, the incentive to do a consistently outstanding job and always be courteous to harried passengers would be lacking. (Federal employees who are in more creative jobs often do very good work, but examining airline passengers’ personal belongings all day is not likely to fit the category of an interesting job.) The fact is their work will be easier when fewer people fly, hence they would have an incentive to discourage people from flying rather than making it a pleasant experience.

If the federal government took over this airport security function, it would have a monopoly on the activity. We all know that monopolies are bad, because they resist innovation, result in higher costs and poorer service, and tend to engage in cover-ups for their own mistakes and deficiencies. We only need to look at the many recent failures of the F.B.I., the most elite federal police force, to have doubts about a less elite operation. The airport security service is more likely to resemble the I.N.S., which has a long record of incompetence, including the failure (along with the F.B.I.) to remove the terrorists who were here illegally.

On Oct. 15, I had an appointment with several colleagues from other think tanks to give a presentation in the U.S. Capitol building. The Capitol, understandably so, is under very tight security, and has an elite police force. When we arrived, we were put through the normal electronic security checks, and upon stating the purpose of our visit and room we were supposed to go to, we were waved through. Several minutes later we were stopped for not wearing nametags, which we had neither been issued nor asked to wear, nor had any objection to wearing. We were then escorted like miscreants back to the door where we entered. What ensued was a spectacle of several Capitol police in an extended argument with each other, in front of us, over who should wear nametags and who should not for what rooms. Ultimately, it was decided we should not wear nametags, much to the displeasure of the nametag advocate.

Shortly thereafter, one of our other colleagues joined us, and mentioned that they would not let him in the first entrance he went to, so he merely went to another entrance and freely walked in. The point here is not to beat up on the Capitol police who were all trying to do their job as they understood it under difficult circumstances, but to illustrate that a federal operating and managed police force is unlikely to be a panacea. If the elite Capitol police cannot get their act together in more than a month after the terrorist attack for one of the most important buildings in the country, why should one assume that newly hired federal security personnel in all of the nation’s airports would be any more competent?

Clearly a more effective solution for the airport security problem would be for the federal government to set standards for airport security and monitor the airports to make sure the standards are being met. For instance, standards for private security personnel might include criminal background checks, a requirement that they must all be US citizens, have completed specified security training, plus a course on how to be pleasant and helpful to the passengers. Security operations at some airports have been lax and the employees rude because the contracting authorities have either not set or not enforced more rigorous standards. Sixteen European countries are reported to have replaced government security personnel with private security firms at airports with very good results, because the governments require high standards of performance.

In organized sports, we separate the rule making and refereeing functions from the playing function, for good reasons. We know in football if we allowed the referees to be part of the home team organization, that many of the mistakes of the home team might be overlooked. The principle is universal; we are likely to get much better airport security if the government sets the rules and enforces the standards on independent operators rather than undertakes the task itself. If the private security company knows that it will lose its contract and if its employees know that they will lose their jobs if they fail to meet the specified standards, there is a strong incentive for good performance that would be lacking if the government were the direct employer.

Socialism has an almost 100 percent record of failure, so why would we want to socialize an activity that clearly could be more competently managed privately?

Richard W. Rahn is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.