If No One Flies, No One Dies

Privatize the TSA to save passengers’ lives, liberty, and dignity

Mothers torn from their children, babies crying, arbitrary checkpoints, heavily armed guards, abusive and supercilious bureaucrats, and futile pleas for reason—a third-world refugee camp?

Unfortunately, it’s a far more familiar site: Logan airport.

Over the past five years, Logan, like other U.S. airports, has cultivated the atmosphere of a minimum security prison. The federal government, armed to the teeth with bureaucratic diktats, inefficient PR stunts and illogical over-reactions, has done its best to making flying thoroughly unpleasant.

We can thank the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for much of this new shoeless security circus. With unseemly haste, the government created the TSA by nationalizing airport security after 9/11, as politicians tripped over each other in a mad dash to ‘do something!’ But this grand experiment in U.S.S.R.-style central planning has failed: The TSA has proved itself an incompetent, abusive, and unnecessary substitute for private airport security providers.

Unsurprisingly, the TSA produced an inefficient hodgepodge of rules and regulations that provide little security at great cost. Despite a raft of new restrictions, systematic infringement on civil liberties, and oodles of investment (over $17 million per day), both the General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Department of Homeland Security have found that the TSA is no more effective than the private security providers it replaced. In fact, in comparison with the five airports that are still privately run (Republicans insisted on exempting them from the nationalization), the GAO found that TSA screening was actually worse.

The underlying reasons for the TSA’s failure are simple: Firstly, it is a central planning agency that attempts to divine universal solutions to diverse problems. Airports in Alaska and Florida have wildly different requirements, and they need to be able to customize their solutions. Secondly, the TSA lacks market feedback. As a government agency, the TSA responds to political incentives, but politicians don’t pay the costs of the TSA’s senseless security procedures—they only face criticism if something goes wrong. As a result, the TSA spends money recklessly and imposes restrictions needlessly, doing anything that could conceivably improve security no matter what the cost. As former Congressman and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Christopher Cox, explained, “After 9/11, we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible.”

Instead of having the TSA both regulate and operate airport security—a clear conflict of interest—we should leave the government to its proper oversight role and revert to the old system of private airport security provision. If the free market can protect Israel’s airports, where screeners are run by private companies, there’s no reason to believe it can’t guard American ones.

Private screeners may have failed to catch the 9/11 hijackers, but there’s no reason to believe that TSA employees would have done a better job. Market incentives wouldn’t make procedures perfect—screenings will still be somewhat humiliating and abusive—but, as a whole, private airport security would be more effective, efficient, and risk-based.

In fact, it is worth considering privatizing aviation security more broadly. Currently, airlines are legally protected from lawsuits related to airplane security because the government has assumed the responsibility (and therefore liability) for providing security. But, given rigorously enforced federal standards, why shouldn’t airlines manage their own policies and be held responsible for the consequences?

Airlines, after all, have proved perfectly capable of managing their own safety standards and equipment maintenance with federal oversight. Of course, allowing airlines to set their own security standards regarding passenger screening, prohibited items, etc. would be complex, requiring coordination between many airlines and airports. If, however, the transaction costs are manageable, privatized security policies would incentivize more rational cost-benefit analysis, leading to policies that are both more effective and innovative. Faced with the threat of multi-million dollar lawsuits and irreparable damage to their reputation (think Pan Am), airlines’ self-interest would improve flight security far more than government central planning.

Furthermore, this would allow individuals to personalize their own risk/convenience tradeoff, picking airlines that, say, have high security and high hassle (e.g. El Al) or low security and high convenience—after all, there’s no reason to believe that a one-size-fits-all model fits everyone.

A potential problem is that individuals may not have access to the facts necessary to make an informed choice, but this could be easily solved by having the TSA, or another agency, rate airlines’ security policies. Thus, an individual would be free to choose an airline that rates, say, a D in security—just as they are free to choose a car that gets only one star in crash tests—if they prefer the convenience or price despite the risks.

A more serious objection is the possibility of externalities to airplane security, such as when planes are hijacked and used as missiles. Individual decisions regarding security tradeoffs may not produce optimal solutions if other people are harmed as a result of the failings of a low security airline.

But with federally-set standards, which would presumably include securing cockpit doors, it is unlikely that future terrorists will attempt to repeat the 9/11 attacks.

As long as we leave politicians in charge of our security system rather than privatizing the TSA and letting airports and airplanes manage our aviation security, rules and regulations will be driven by political calculations, not rational cost-benefit analysis. The TSA’s approach amounts to little more than, “if no one flies, no one dies.”

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.