Private Airport Screeners Outperform Government Counterparts

Published July 1, 2005

Privately employed airport screeners do a better job than government airport screeners, according to a recent U.S. government report, prompting a key lawmaker to call for a return to private airport screeners and other changes to the nation’s aviation security system.

“Over the last three-and-a-half years we have spent billions of dollars creating a Soviet-style, centralized bureaucracy that has resulted in great inefficiencies and inflexibility with little improvement in screener effectiveness,” said Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation. Mica was a lead author of the aviation security legislation approved by Congress after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This money could have been much better spent on better screening and other security technology,” Mica said.

$4 Billion Wasted

Mica’s April 19 statement came in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, and other reports, showing most of the more than $4 billion the federal government has spent on improving transportation security since the September 11 attacks has been a waste. Security has improved little, if at all.

After the September 11 attacks, Congress made airport screeners government employees at every commercial airport but five. Before then, airport security screeners everywhere had been privately employed by the airlines serving each terminal.

The five excepted airports–in San Francisco; Tupelo, Mississippi; Rochester, New York; Kansas City, Missouri; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming–have privately employed security screeners who are supervised by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials.

The GAO report determined the privately employed screeners at those airports do a statistically significant better job of detecting dangerous objects than screeners at the 450 other commercial airports who are employed by the government.

Screeners Failed Tests Twice

The GAO report, released in April, followed the January 26 testimony of Richard Skinner, acting inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Skinner testified, “the ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to September 11, 2001.”

Skinner’s report was the second inspector general’s report to conclude government screeners were doing no better than the people they replaced, despite the infusion of government money and new inspection rules. The conclusions were based on hundreds of undercover tests at airports from November 2004 through February 2005. Investigators tried to sneak fake weapons or explosives past screeners and evaluated how often they were detected.

In “Another Blow to the TSA’s Stewardship,” an April article for The Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, Charles G. Slepian, Esq. noted, “nobody who follows these things was surprised to learn that our airport screening program has flunked the test once again. What is noteworthy is that the DHS Inspector General conducted a similar test in 2003 at the same airports.

“At that time,” continued Slepian, “the department made recommendations to the TSA on how to improve its performance, but the recommendations have had little impact on the agency’s ability to detect weapons and explosives at screening stations and in checked baggage.”

Too Centralized in Washington

TSA’s screening operation is highly centralized in Washington, DC. The contractors are selected and supervised by the TSA, not by the airport involved.

Critics say this makes them less able to make good use of “local knowledge” and limits their ability to be flexible or innovative in looking for ways to improve performance. That the flexibility of the private firms, however limited in extent, made enough of a difference to show up in GAO’s comparison suggests a more performance-based approach to contracting, with each airport selecting its preferred contractor and managing the relationship, might do much better than TSA.

Mica noted these problems in his official statement: “Quite frankly it is difficult, if not impossible, to micromanage the hiring, deployment, training, and employment of tens of thousands of screeners from Washington, DC to scores of differently configured airports with fluctuating scheduling requirements.”

Privatization, New Tech Suggested

To address the findings, Mica has suggested privatizing screeners and replacing the existing system with sophisticated equipment, such as in-line explosive detection systems and “backscatter” X-ray machines.

“It is absolutely critical that in-line baggage screening systems and advanced checkpoint screening technology be fully funded and put in place as soon as possible,” Mica said.

“The GAO in another recent report confirmed that 78 percent fewer personnel would be used with high tech check baggage screening, which would save billions annually after installation costs,” Mica said. “That’s amazing–a dramatic increase in the detection of weapons and explosives would take place with a dramatic reduction in personnel and operating costs.”

Privacy Issues Noted

However, some privacy advocates have questioned the use of such technologies. Backscatter X-ray machines, for instance, give screeners a clear picture of what is underneath a person’s clothing, including the bare skin. It is almost like standing naked before a screener.

The American Civil Liberties Union says use of the machines would subject millions of travelers to “a virtual strip search” and would be an invasion of personal privacy.

“This leads directly to a surveillance society,” said Barry Steinhardt, who runs the ACLU’s technology program, in a May 15 article in USA Today.

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