Federal Transportation Screeners Raise Conflict of Interest Issue

Published September 1, 2004

July articles in the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Daily News identified passenger complaints about “stolen or damaged items from checked baggage as the number one air traveler complaint” about security and noted that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gets complaints at “nearly three times the rate of the airlines.”

Several stories at the end of June reported screener firings over theft from checked luggage: Four were canned at Ft. Lauderdale International and 13 at New Orleans International.

Other stories reported allegations by screeners in Buffalo, Houston, LaGuardia, and Tampa that they were ordered to let unscreened bags through, so as not to delay flights.

In the Houston case, Associated Press reported that two internal TSA investigations “found no evidence that unscreened luggage was loaded onto passenger jets.”

So, I guess that settles it, right? Not quite.

These were investigations internal to TSA itself. As with any individual or organization, when a government agency is charged with serious misconduct, should we really be satisfied if it gives itself a clean bill of health?

There are two problems with this picture. One is perception. The whole idea of “federalization” of the airport security process was to give the public warm, fuzzy feelings of safety, because our government was in charge. But if TSA is perceived to be covering up its failings, what happens to those warm, fuzzy feelings?

Even worse, what if this is more than just a problem of perception? There is a natural tendency in all large, bureaucratic organizations (public and private) to defend themselves, and always a temptation to cover up embarrassing lapses. That’s why we often design institutions with arms-length watchdogs, rather than letting the watchdogs watch themselves.

All of which is to say, once again, that combining the provision of security services with the regulation of security creates a built-in conflict of interest. Congress created that conflict, and it’s incumbent on Congress to fix this mistake.

Robert W. Poole Jr. ([email protected]) is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.