Privatize the TSA!

The TSA has failed to meaningfully detect dangerous items going through the checkpoint for years. Their 95% failure rate is hardly new, ten years ago it was a 91% failure rate.

That’s unacceptable. We don’t need — and couldn’t possibly have — perfect security. We just need to have reasonably good detection. The TSA has never caught a terrorist, but fortunately there aren’t that many terrorists out to give up their lives taking down planes in the U.S. And terrorism is hard.

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)

Unfortunately TSA detection rates are likely worse than before the federalization of security. But that’s not all.

The TSA is actually harmful, not merely ineffective 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.

A year ago the TSA said their response to public shaming over abysmal screening performance would be to make screening take longer. And they accomplished exactly what they set out to do.

This is dangerous. Long security lines create easy targets. I wrote about that phenomenon in a long form article in Doublethink in December 2001. If nothing else that should be a lesson from the Brussels airport attack. Meanwhile increasing time of air travel pushes more travelers to the roads which are less safe, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘statistical murder’.

Denver airport is known for unmatched security wait times. One thousand American Airlines passengers missed flights at just one airport – Chicago O’Hare – in just one month (March) due to long security wait times.

TSA Bikeriding Inside the Charleston, South Carolina Terminal

Congress has appropriated money for overtime. The TSA says that’s not enough. Airlines and the TSA itself say they need more still. Some airports are threatening to kick out the TSA and bring in private screeners.

  • Bringing in private companies to screen passengers is a good idea. But it doesn’t go far enough.

  • We should separate safety regulation from screening. End TSA screening entirely to focus on oversight, and move towards private screening entirely.

The FAA is responsible for airline safety but doesn’t actually fly the planes. In fact the area where the FAA ‘does it themselves’ is also the most problematic, air traffic control, which is severely broken and underfunded as a long term capital expense while also being wasteful and suffering from stagnation of innovation.

    The same agency shouldn’t be responsible for setting screening standards and for carrying out the screening itself. That creates conflict and it creates poor performance.

Many people who remember what security screening prior to 9/11 don’t necessarily want “a return to pre-9/11 security” but that isn’t what you’d get. Private contractors were performing to the standards of the time. And federalizing security after 9/11 in many cases just put the same people at the checkpoints just with a different employer.

When you split up oversight from performing the function you get better oversight AND performance. Now TSA does mostly security theater and doesn’t do it well because they are effectively held completely responsible for failures. Perfect security is impossible but we should give a safety regulator a mandate to focus on relative risk. This is imperfect. The FDA for instance is too conservative. But that underscores that if anything you get a conservative bias towards too much security, not too lax security.

Don’t shield liability, either, so airports and private security become liable for the consequences of failure. Not only are their assets on the line but their insurers have a strong incentive for oversight. If anything the tort system over-regulates hence frequent calls for tort reform.

This wouldn’t be like current programs where airports opt out of TSA screeners. Relatively few airports have been allowed to do this. With a wider array of airports contracting you can support many more competing firms. And instead of just having to outcompete the TSA they’d have to outcompete each other on quality, price, and service.

You can hold private firms accountable for their performance. The only way to hold TSA accountable is congressional hearings and calls to give them even more money the more they fail. That’s the most perverse incentive there is for good security or for reasonable efficiency.

We need to bring back private screening. It is easier to scale up employment at a private company. Private hiring isn’t giving someone a lifetime job and it doesn’t make them nearly impossible to fire as it does at DHS.

Airlines don’t want this because they would pay more — today’s security taxes don’t cover the full cost of the bloated TSA though those taxes don’t go directly to security either. Airlines like and argue for subsidies. Most airports want subsidized security, too, while they complain. But it would get us both better security and better screening efficiency at a lower net cost to travelers and taxpayers combined.

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. Why is it that people also start claiming privatization is some kind of magic bullet? It’s not. There are things that should be run by the government – and airport security is one of them. If it is privately run, there is a profit motive. Companies answer to shareholders, not to citizens. The problem isn’t with the TSA, it is with us. I have never had a problem with the TSA – I have always been treated with respect – and as far as the latest wait lines – that is being caused by and large by people trying to avoid baggage fees – and if you want to blame somebody about that, blame the airlines – or blame people being to cheap to pay to check their luggage. Another issue is “security theater”. Everybody takes their shoes off… and for what? Because one knucklehead tried to light his shoe and the media and everyone lost their minds and demanded that the government take action. Well, you asked for it, and you got it. If you want to fix the problem, look in the mirror and become an intelligent voter. Demand the media do their job and report facts instead of playing to fear and ignorance. All privatization will do is make it even more expensive and keep all the same problems.

  2. Since when are TSA allowed to wear clothing identifying them as “POLICE” (photo labeled “TSA Bikeriding” clearly shows a shirt with POLICE on the back).

    I’m no fan of the TSA. I agree that the best course of action for most airports is privatization of security. But, blatant misrepresentation to make the TSA look worse than they do on their own doesn’t help our case!

  3. Should the TSA be privatized? I don’t know. But I do know it is severely broken. Travel from Paris or Vancouver, for example, and notice how each agent is clearly focused on their task. Compare that to what we see here in the states, where the agents are laid-back and socializing with each other.

  4. Gerry’s stupid.
    So you’re saying TSA answers to citizens?
    From your picture, you look like you’re high on drugs.

    Back to the point about the TSA, just don’t fly for now.
    Let everything go bankrupt and get dissolved.
    Then start fresh with a new system.
    I haven’t flown in 1 year and I’m loving it.

  5. Why do we insist on re-inventing what has already been researched, developed, and implemented–by both the British at Heathrow, etc. and Israel at Ben Gurion, etc? They spend money up front on very competent psychologists who do not waste their time screening soldiers in uniform or handicapped elderly. But they are also not hamstrung by some phony PC policy pretending the West is not under siege.

    Sorry, but the TSA gives off the whiff of just another government jobs program, particularly when they miss 95% of an audit to find dangerous materials. I do not know about privatizing it, as we saw what happened before 9-11 when it was privatized–staffed by under paid, overly incompetent, and many sympathizing with the enemy. As we have tolerated a society where privatization means the fastest race to the bottom of salary, benefits, and skills, perhaps more dogs and robots?

    In essence, we need a new administration in Washington not staffed with kinder corps foreign policy non-experts; we need people who would have the credentials to be respected in giving advice to the president, and working with their peers around the world to enhance air travel safety.

  6. IT’s the people they hire, some can’t get on a police force so the next best thing is the TSA, and some people see it as a way to get a Federal job and skate through the job and don’t take it seriously. There are plenty of people out there that want jobs, and would do a great job at it. The stigma of the TSA is hard to get around.

  7. I’m not against privatization in theory, but I think you correctly pointed out that the private security agency would have to be liable. While I agree with that, do you think any company would even want to get into that business? Financially, I’d assume that they could buy some (very expensive) insurance. That cost would most definitely be passed onto the consumer. Also, even with insurance, as soon as 1 company allowed a terrorist event to happen, that company would essentially be out of business because no airport would allow that company to operate due to the immense public backlash that would occur. Essentially, I believe that the “free market” would in theory deliver to us the best possible security. But, in this case, the security market is just to big of a gamble to get into if they are financially liable. And therefore privatization wouldn’t work. Personally, I think the solution is to lower the cost of PreCheck and hopefully significantly increase the percentage of people that use it and then allow those people go through expedited security. I’d assume there would be a significant portion of our country who would cry about the “gubment” having too much information, but then they have made a choice to stand in a (possibly very long) line instead of give up their info…and hence I’d have very little sympathy for them….especially as I breeze through PreCheck.

  8. @ME SINGER – The Israeli model doesn’t scale. Ben Gurion is equal to a single mid-sized airport in the US. Just. One.

  9. So you don’t like the Feds handling it.

    A private monopoly will be better? Imagine a Comcast like company doing screening in most of the country. Or AT&T.

    All they have to do is bribe some politicians and civil service employees to get exclusive airport contracts.

    And like someone mentioned, the liability makes insurance ridiculous.

    Imagine prices charged like what health insurance and hospitals charge.

  10. Gary-it’s the concept that I invoked. If it is just about size, Heathrow is still the largest in Europe and continues to avoid these terror issues. Also, Israel is about to build another new Ben Gurion airport.

    If focused on scale, El Al Israel Airlines utilizes on-board air marshals, who also guard the equipment when on the ground at a foreign airport.

    It’s obvious the current model does not work, as it is obvious there are better models out there that do work. This does not require a trial and error effort, as it is already proven for us to incorporate.

  11. Our attitude towards security is completely messed up. We should willing to accept 0.1% accidentrate including terrorism. Just accept that small number of people will die every year. Save hundreds of billions on not needed security and use that to pay down debt. Why should plane travel be safer than road travel?

    Privatizing will do to tsa what it has done to health insurance, make some people rich, make it unaffordable for most. I think privatizing is acceptable only if there is capital punishment for even the slightest mistake illegal activity. The stakea should be much higher for people that want to privatize everything. You Texans have bravado coming out of your wazoo when it comes to talking but don’t back it up by taking responsibility when needed ( ergo fertilizer plant blast in Texas, oil spill in Santa Barbara etc)

  12. I traveled from Kansas City on Monday, 5/19. When I got into the security lines, my PreCheck line had about 8 people and the non-PreCheck line had 4 people. The whole process took less than 5 minutes. What’s different? KCI has a private company doing security. The airport and the airlines need to control what’s going on at the security check points. With TSA, they are subject to ridiculous political playground fights and end up paying a big price. We need to seriously look at taking airport security out of the control of the political crazies and let someone who cares about the passengers run the operation.

  13. I agree 100% Gary. The question is how soon can Congress fire these bozos?

    I think the lull between Summer and Holidays (Sept-Oct) would be perfect for the switchover.

  14. I agree with @Ben. There some benefits to privatizing in the sense you can at least hold someone accountable for inadequate staffing at checkpoints, but it doesn’t really solve the actual problems/flaws with the security process. On top of that the actual check point security is just one of many different times you interact with TSA or the rest of the security “blanket” at an airport. There is baggage screening, there is perimeter screening, there is background screening, etc. Furthermore there are airports out there already that have outsourced some aspects of this but that seems to have been lost in the discussion of effectiveness.

    In many ways, I think folks are way over thinking when it comes to check point screening. The number one thing TSA or any screener needs to find are bombs or bomb making materials. A gun or knife, while not a good thing to let slip pass, is really no longer an endgame for a terrorist. 9/11 changed the playbook. Any attempt for a passenger to hijack an aircraft is going to be met with resistance from the other passengers. Furthermore all of the check-point screening is useless if you can’t secure the rest of the airport including ramp staff.

    Meanwhile terrorists have realized they don’t even need to sneak stuff past security, they can just blow up bombs curb-side, making the fact Congress is not hammering TSA for creating larger soft targets all the harder to grasp.

  15. Almost all post-9/11 security measures are pure THEATRE designed to reassure the public it is safe to fly. They are expensive showmanship that the public and airlines embrace when it works for them, and criticize when it doesn’t.

    When it breaks down, people misguidedly think they can fix it by rearranging the org chart. They fail to recognize, that hiring different minimum wages clerks to run the operation, doesn’t change the structural problem. It’s not a job that really needs doing. Well it does, because now we’ve raised a generation of kids who accept that no price is too high to generate a false sense of airport security.

    The depressing part to me though, is how ungrateful the airlines are about this. I realize corporations are sociopaths, but without very expensive National Guardsmen standing around in airports in the days after 9/11, and later the TSA being spun up, there’d have been a collapse in US air travel. However fake, the confidence inspired kept them afloat, they could show a bit of gratitude for that.

  16. I think your point that the current setup is actually killing people rather than saving them is very well taken and needs to be emphasized more emphatically by those who understand what is going on. A thousand people standing in line landside waiting to go through security are sitting ducks for a real terrorist – see Brussels – compared to the difficulty of actually bringing down a plane. And the “statistical murder” of driving people to the highways is real. Can it be quantified? It would be great to have some data here, though I understand it may be too soon for the applicable information to be known. I know that I personally would now drive several hours before I’d stand in endless airport lines for hours for TSA to humiliate me. Fortunately my home airport is a smaller regional one with relatively smooth security so far, so if I can make sure to go through the bad ones only with connecting flights, I’ve been OK.

  17. How is it that it took Gary this long to cry ‘Privitize the TSA’? Saving it up for maximum effect I guess.
    Someone suggested Comcast or AT& T? Too expensive. Less is more. I suggest the contract be offered to Walmart and at the end of ‘training’ they can have someone there to sign them up for food stamps and housing assistance.

  18. @Joe, Did you read what the new staff at Terminal 4 will be doing in the WSJ article you cited. Their job is to:

    (1) Harass people about their carry ons.
    (2) Lecture people about security protocols.
    (3) Admonish people that want to put on their shoes when they come off the screening tray instead of moving to the chair to put on their shoes.

    This sounds very unpleasant, like make work, and I doubt it will speed up the lines. Unbelievable.

  19. @ Flyer Fun – you are more cynical than me. I actually think it WILL help speed up the lines, despite the fact that I don’t like the idea of policing carry-ons. Nevertheless, if it doesn’t work, the private sector owners of the terminal will let go the private-sector contractors, as it’s not cost effective or productive. But for now, they deem it worth a try, and I agree.

    And note that the private sector, profit-seeking owners of the Terminal haven’t seen fit to hire private sector replacements for the TSA workers, at least for now. I’d love to know why.

  20. Give it to Experian. They already know EVERYTHING about us.

    800’s pass through and 600’s get strip searched, even if they’re ugly.

    Seriously: charge for carryons and have a separate TSA line for them but let them board first so after bins are full personal items have to be put under seats.

    Carryons have gotten ridiculous anyway.

  21. TSA has been mismanaged and mistrained since inception. Yes, put in place to allay the fears of the flying public. Immediately after 9/11 ALL carry ons with the exceptions of medications and maybe a 10x10x2 bag should have been prohibited. Airlines would have had plenty of time to get their baggage handlers up to speed since they weren’t doing anything else for months. At that time the public would have accepted the rule. Screening would not be what it is today. I am happily retired from my years of airport service and could write a book but it would not make anyone any safer. But neither does the TSA.

  22. TSA is not the problem. They certainly are not worse than the private firms before 911. In no particular order:
    1. Airlines – charging for checked luggage is the most idiotic thing they have thought of. Nothing like having mom, dad and two young kids all with their carry-on bags thru TSA. If they charged for anything other than a “personal item” carried on, what a difference it would make!
    2. Congress – lack of adequate funding.
    3. The Average Non-frequent traveler – Just stand in a line for 10 minutes and you will understand what TSA is dealing with. Many of the folks shouldn’t be allowed out of assisted living.

    I breeze thru PreCheck but it’s not just theatrics (shoes, baggie, etc). It’s primarily because most are frequent travelers that know the drill. Also, a lot have premier status or airline credit card and check their luggage for free.

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