Here’s How to Finally Fix the TSA Mess

Julian over at Travel Codex picks a fight with me. He doesn’t just disagree with me over privatizing the TSA. He gets personal: “Though do you remember the Dean in “Old School”? That guy was a total jerk, right? So maybe for the purposes of today’s post we’ll think of Gary as that sort of “Dean” of Boarding Area and then it’ll be okay to argue with him and maybe egg his house or something.”

    Jeremy Piven in “Old School”

He throws down with Jeremy Piven, who isn’t just Ari from Entourage. He’s also the creepy guy who kept texting evil travel hacker Justin Ross Lee‘s girlfriend.

Julian offers three overly simplistic – and very much incorrect – arguments.

  1. TSA was private before 9/11. 9/11 Bad.

    Of course, when we talk about privatizing airport security screening, we’re actually talking about re-privatizing the system. And the first, best argument against private screening is to simply compare the historical record before TSA and after.

  2. Private companies aren’t better, they’re the same, and with the TSA at least you can complain to Congress.

  3. The real problem is more people are flying and we aren’t spending enough money on screeners.

He concludes, “I’m not personally against the idea of privatization, but the idea never seems to come from an evidence-based analysis, but rather just an ideological one.”

And that’s just wrong. It seems as though Julian’s own ideology prevents him from seeing the evidence of how private screeners actually perform which conflicts with his own priors.

First, recognize that TSA performance is awful. The TSA has failed to meaningfully detect dangerous items going through the checkpoint for years. Their 95% failure rate isn’t new. Ten years ago it was a 91% failure rate. So the TSA isn’t getting better.

TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: Tocqueville)

Second, TSA is actually harmful, not merely ineffective. TSA wait times create easy terrorist targets. They also push people to driving over flying which is more dangerous (a phenomenon known as ‘statistical murder’). And despite a workforce run amok they were given a union making it even harder to hold “the few bad apples” accountable, thus encouraging even more bad apples.

Julian attacks a total straw man, because I never advocated ‘a return to pre-9/11 security’. It’s almost as though he didn’t read the post he criticizes. (“Bringing in private companies to screen passengers is a good idea. But it doesn’t go far enough.”)

I argue that we should separate safety regulation from screening. The same agency shouldn’t be responsible for setting screening standards and for carrying out the screening itself. TSA as its own regulator creates conflict and it creates poor performance. The FAA is responsible for airline safety but doesn’t actually fly the planes.

Furthermore we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk. The TSA, overly responsive to Congress, sacrifices security for security theater. Even when the TSA tries to do the right thing they can’t. They wanted to focus limited resources on real threats like explosives and not on golf clubs, but politicians objected to passengers carrying on golf clubs so TSA was forced to continue looking for low risk items which trades off with a laser-like focus on things that would be more likely used in terrorist plots.

Comparing to pre-9/11 security completely ignores all the recent evidence. You do not have to look back 15 years to find private security. Pre-9/11 screeners followed the standards of the time. But thanks to the Screening Partnership Program — which the TSA and its union has fought to keep limited — we have evidence of exactly how private screening under current rules (which should themselves be improved) work.

  • San Francisco and Kansas City airports have had private screeners since the creation of TSA.

  • All screening in Canada is done by government-certified screening companies.

  • Most large airports in Europe have government-certified screening companies manning their checkpoints.

They’re doing exactly what I recommended expanding further in the US: separating out regulation from provision of services.

A TSA commissioned study found that private screening in US airports was “as good as or better than” TSA screening.

A 2011 Congressional study compared screeners at SFO (private) with those at LAX (TSA).

Comparing private screening at SFO with TSA screening at LAX, they found that because the private SFO screeners process 65% more passengers per screener than TSA screeners at LAX, switching to private screening at LAX would require 867 fewer screeners there, at annual savings of $33 million. This study also found the screener attrition rate to be 60% greater at LAX (13.8%) than at SFO (8.7%), which also drives up costs (and may slow down lanes as newbies learn the ropes after training).

The problem isn’t that over $7 billion a year and 50,000 employees isn’t enough to screen passengers as Julian suggests (though TSA should certainly redeploy 2800 Behavior Detection Officers to the checkpoint).

Instead government provided screening is hugely inefficient. Screening companies have more staff flexibility – can staff up for peak periods “rather than having too many full-timers with nothing to do at non-peak times.” They can “match screener staffing levels to passenger traffic levels, both seasonally and during each day’s peaks and valleys.”

Contra Julian who says “For the moment, there’s really no evidence that returning to a private screening system would be any different than how things are now or how they were before the TSA was formed. So take that, Dean Gary!”

There’s plenty of evidence that:

  • The TSA performs badly, has for years, and is not getting any better.
  • Separating oversight from provision of services is better for security, efficiency, and customer service.
  • And all we have to do to see it — not just in other elements of government activity but even directly in screening — is look at airports that have screening companies, here in the U.S., in Canada, and in Europe.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. how about use the money collected from ticket fees to hire more trained workers.

    seems like the money is being siphoned off for other things

  2. As long as we continue to have a dis-functional Congress ( both House & Senate) where neither party is willing to work with the other, nothing will change.

  3. Lol to argument 2. “At least you can complain to your congressmen” Yeah….because that has done so much.

    Assuming they did an actual privatization of Airport Security (and not that BS where they say it’s private but it’s only one private company that has the contract and there isn’t allowed to be competition, that’s just as bad) security lines would be so much safer and so much more efficient. Unfortunately, the government would never allow that and people who think the government can fix anything/everything, won’t allow it either.

  4. If it makes you feel better, I didn’t even know Julian had written anything about you until reading your post. I still didn’t go back and read his. Does anyone still read Julian’s posts? They are all poorly thought out arguments just for the sake of being contrary. *yawn* I’ve actually stopped reading Travel Codex because of him.

  5. “TSA wait times create easy terrorist targets. ” They create EASIER targets. As you mention/quote later on, in SFO each screener processes 65% more passengers relative to TSA at LAX. Any large group of people is an easy target. Privatization would reduce the number of people in security lines, but there would still be security lines. I doubt a terrorist is concerned about killing ONLY 50 people relative to 125 if TSA was present…by definition each will cause ample “terror”. It helps to rebuke a person’s arguments when you don’t speak in absolutes.

    “The FAA is responsible for airline safety but doesn’t actually fly the planes. Furthermore we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk.” Wouldn’t this “safety regulator” be beholden to congress as the FAA is? (I’m making the assumption that the Federal Aviation Authority is beholden to Congress, if not please inform me). As such, couldn’t Congress just tell this new “safety regulator” to continue to monitor for golf clubs?

    You cite Canada and European use of private companies. Have they created, or is there, a true market for private security companies? Or is it just a single company in Canada and a single company per European country? If so, that just creates a monopoly which inherently do not respond to any criticisms.

  6. Good article Gary. Like others, I stopped even reading Julian’s stuff unless it’s pointed out to me.

    In my opinion, the heart of the issue (though not the only aspect) is this part of your post:

    “…Furthermore we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk. The TSA, overly responsive to Congress, sacrifices security for security theater. Even when the TSA tries to do the right thing they can’t…”

    Congress, as with the public, generally sucks at analyzing and understanding risk. And Congresspeople of course want to look like they are “doing something” and wish to avoid being blamed if something goes wrong. So both Congress and citizens are readily focused on the sort of theatrics that “look” like the right answer with no linkage to actual threat risk mitigation. Talking to various acquaintances, and even some posters on places like FT, it’s amazing how many people have a “anything for security” and “whatever it takes to make us safe” mindset without truly even knowing what is effective at achieving a goal of reasonable safety.

    Until the public is educated on this, I don’t see any hope of reforming the commercial passenger aviation security situation.

  7. Privitazation NEVER works. This is because a company wants at least a 30% profit return that the government doesn’t require, the reason why civilized societies organize safety concerns under the government to maintain control as well as exclude them from the corrupting profit motive.

    Since the government won’t give 30% extra for profits to buy yachts and third houses for private business owners, they squeeze workers and cut corners. The number of rail crashes increases in UK under rail privatization, workers revolt and strike more, customer service decreases.

    Like still harboring the plan to kill Social Security and Medicare, these fever dreams infect those with the selfish genes like the Ayn Rand acolytes who polluted college classes and made the girls get up and move away from them. One of them is now the highest ranking Republican, only two heartbeats away from the Presidency. Americans are viewed worldwide as so stupid they’ll likely vote for a transparent real estate con man. Our icon is still suspected to be W. Bush.

  8. @Gary – You neglect one argument that I can think of: Private companies would not have the special privileges afforded to government performing weird, confusing, indefinite police/non-police work.

    Not only would they NOT focus on rounding up illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, which pose no threat to aviation and reduce resources allocated to terrorism, but your rights would be partially restored as these “non-police police” would lose their automatic special protections as government employees. At least, I would hope it would work that way.

  9. What is the “effectiveness” rate of private screeners?

    I see it as an impossible task in any case. You want screeners to find the one terrorist bomb amongst hundreds of millions of passengers, yet not slow down the lines. Thoroughness is compromised by speed. Private companies would be more “responsive” in that they’d compromise the thoroughness of screening, to speed up the lines during a crunch.

    I’d argue we SHOULD return to pre-9/11 screening. We are spending billions a year, on a problem that doesn’t exist any more. Nobody is going to hijack multiple airliners and recreate 9/11 it’s just not possible.

  10. Perfect arguments Gary–well said as always. I often use this simple statement to those who defend government-run security theater:

    “Why would you want the same people who run the post office and the DMV operating airport security?”

    That’s exactly what we have now–and it’s a mess……no wonder there are lines! (and inefficiencies, and waste and incompetence, etc, etc). Ever wonder why governments don’t “innovate”? The answer to every problem—more government!

  11. Exactly where have the bombs been loaded onto the planes in the most recent incidents? It’s suspected that they were put on by “insiders” and not a passenger. The TSA is a total and complete waste of taxpayer money. I trust my fellow passengers far more than I do any TSA agent and their 3-5% detection rate. We better wake up and start doing more checking on the screeners themselves (and stopping the theft would be a good place to start), the folks who load our planes, the folks who pack the food that goes on said planes, etc., etc. it boggles the mind as to how much money the “government” wastes and this security theatre ranks right up there with the best of them.

  12. @Greg privatization works all around us, but let’s stick to screening, there is evidence *from the government* that it works in SFO and MCI better than TSA does. More efficient, better throughput, lower cost and as safe or safer.

  13. @Gary: Source?

    We heard all of this anti-government rhetoric which elected Bush, who proceeded to take down regulations and privatize. Result: Utter complete ruin of our economy, near-toppling of the world financial system, endless unprovoked wars, popularizing know-nothingism where facts don’t weigh in at all, just whether good-ole-boys like the way it sounds. Every drop of blood shed in two World Wars squandered as we are now considered a loose cannon instead of looked up to. Even the most respected man in the world Obama wasn’t able to mitigate the utter ruin as it’s likely permanent and total. The stupidest know-nothings on the planet will hold us back from any further repair or progress. This is what school kids are taught now in other countries like our allies Australia, UK, Spain, Japan, etc. The US has been ruined by stupid. I grew up around these people and immediately recognized them when they started coming across my AM radio and elected Bush. Rednecks. The lowest creatures on the planet.

  14. You mean the “source” linked to liberatarian Reason Magazine, which itself offered no source for the claim?

  15. The reason for the increase of the delay times is that more passengers are taking bags onboard to avoid luggage charges for checked bags by the airlines.If the government MANDATED that airlines allow 2 pieces of luggage to be freely checked in like those big shots get as a benefit of their frequent flyer status or annual fee credit cards there would be a hell of a lot less baggage to screen,just passenger’s pockets.But of course this would curb the greed of the airlines.

  16. A very interesting debate. Three comments:

    1) The evidence you link to (supporting your argument that privately run security is better than the TSA) is a second-hand summary of research presented at a conference, published on the “Reason Foundation” website. This gives Julian’s “ideology over evidence” charge against you some legs. Also, I would be interested in the methodology in comparing LAX and SFO security — is this a valid comparison that controls for differentiating factors independent of private versus public security characteristics?

    2) Is there any evidence that privately run security actually has a better screening rate (rate of catching dangerous items/people)? While saving money and time are nice goals, I think the primary goal of airport security should be to provide at least *some* amount of safety.

    3) You make a very convincing recommendation: “we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk;” and an astute diagnosis of the problem: “The TSA, overly responsive to Congress, sacrifices security for security theater. Even when the TSA tries to do the right thing they can’t.” — However, I am not convinced that your recommendation requires privatization of security, nor am I convinced that your diagnosis of the problem is not also a problem that would occur with a private security company with federal regulatory oversight.

    Lastly, I think what gets lost in the discussion are the costs involved in switching from the TSA to a privatized security team (e.g., length of time to switch over, vulnerabilities in security during the switch, etc.), should rigorous, peer-reviewed evidence lead to such a recommendation. Are there any analyses (on the pro-privatization side) that take these into account?

    Thanks for a wonderfully informative and entertaining blog!

  17. @Greg I agree with everything you’ve written here, thanks.

    @Greg @Gary I wish all the selfish Randian Libertarians would go live in the no-rules, no-government Libertarian utopia of Sudan.

  18. @Greg that’s patently false about lack of sourcing of the claim, and Bob Poole is pretty centrist as far as transportation goes. In any case, ad hom is not a substitute for argumentation…

  19. Then where is the link to the source study, or any other than a political journal’s take on it?

  20. @J. R. Meyer see above, i uploaded the original congressional report.

    Private screening was judged *by the TSA* to be as good or better [and with their failure rate, it’s almost impossible to be worse]

  21. The issue is NOT can private companies do a better job with the same rules, but to change the rules all together. I don’t think privatization would help this really, as it would just throw profit motive in it. What we need is a realization that we NEVER will be 100% safe, and we are paying through the nose for the ILLUSION of safety. Once we are willing to admit that the price for freedom is an accident/incident every once in a while, and we change the thoughts of the people making the RULES, so that liquids over 3.4oz are allowed, and you can keep your shoes on, things will work ALOT better. Who the TSA gets paid by isn’t going to change all that much at all if they follow the same crappy SOP.

  22. @Joelfreak – of course you need to change the rules, but part of getting there is splitting up oversight from screening.

  23. Of course Julian resorts to ad hominem attacks. That’s what his ilk do in an effort to shut down debate. He sounds like the type to call people racist if they express an idea not in lock-step with the far left.

    Either that, or he is just doing this disingenuously to get the free advertising for his blog via your response. Personally, I think you are better off not responding, since it really only helps him if you do.

  24. Gary, is it true that in the 95% failure rate study that is often quoted that the test was carried out by people who were familiar with TSA procedures? I’d suggest that being compromised by people who know you completely might not be the most accurate way to gauge security.

  25. The 95% failure rate is often cited, but misunderstood. TSA does not fail 95% of their tests. That fail rate was for “Red Team” testing. The Red Teams are insiders who are sent in to deliberately break the system. Pass their test and they crank it up and keep cranking until failure happens. Think of it as a car going through crash tests passing at 25 MPH, then being subjected to increased testing until it breaks. At 75 MPH it’s bound to fail. But the real life standard isn’t that high. The TSA tests by Red Teams are looking for extremes in order to raise the standards. The easy way for TSA the avoid the publicity is to simply stop the Red Team tests, but that would also stop technological and training advances.

  26. @BESP Mac I really cannot believe you even suggest “The easy way for TSA the avoid the publicity is to simply stop the Red Team tests” of course you want to test with people who know what they’re doing, because people who don’t are easy to stop, the whole point is that an organized terror plot that you need to defend against would be well-=planned by… people who know what they’re doing. And failing 95% of those is what matters, not when the median passenger accidentally leaves a bottle of water in their bag.

  27. @BESP Mac @Gaurav

    You assume your opponents don’t know your processes, procedures, technologies. That is completely false. Your opponents are certainly conducting ongoing surveillance just as the 9/11 hijackers did to prep for that mission. Saying it’s not fair that they failed because the testing is too good is completely backward. Thewholeoint of testing is to address shortfalls it identifies.

  28. This is an old article, but have you yourself gone thorough the training and certification process, or is this just being an armchair expert?

    There are lots of details left under wraps internally, and lots of people that do get stopped, and arrested don’t get mentioned by the news.

    Also, LAX has Private Security instead of TSOs, and those guys are dickheads, less trained than TSA.

    Take it from someone who worked as a supervisor for years doing private security. Companies will hire any moron to fill a seat, and I had to guide those idiots on a daily basis.

    TSOs at least are held to a certain standard, unlike private security.

  29. I was a private screener and a Tsa screener at O’hare
    Airport in Chicago, Illinois.
    See my book on
    The TSA Plantation. The book describes the true culture and focus of the
    unqualified, sexualized, culture inside a failed process.

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