A few days ago, our friend Gary Leff over at View From The Wing wrote a post arguing the time has come to take the function of airport security screening away from the Transportation Security Administration and give it to private firms instead.
Now, I’m confident that Gary is completely objective when it comes to this issue, especially considering the 16 posts he writes on average every week about how much he loves the TSA. But I consider Gary to be the Dean of Boarding Area, so I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t argue with him. 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.
Privatization has become a popular idea in the mainstream media and with the flying public, given the intolerably long lines at TSA checkpoints recently. And in my experience, when the Conventional Wisdom starts to gel around a course of action, there’s a 50/50 likelihood it’s actually a terrible idea. Or at least nowhere near as good as advertised.
So while it may seem like I’m picking on Gary in this post, I’m really arguing against the Conventional Wisdom which has decided that privatization is a great idea. And also because Gary is still upset that we made fun of his hair when we were all together in junior high. No, wait, that’s “Old School” again. Never mind.
The pre-9/11 system was privatized… and terrible.
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. Here it is in convenient chart form…
Or if you prefer, we can frame the results in a different way, such as this…
Granted, these are both rather simplistic analyses, and in fairness to Gary he does note that “many people who remember security screening prior to 9/11 don’t necessarily want ‘a return to pre-9/11 security.'” I can speak to this personally and say, yep, I definitely do not want a return to pre-9/11 security because pre-9/11 security was absolutely atrocious.
The problem is while Gary suggests that wouldn’t happen this time around, he doesn’t really offer any evidence for that conclusion other than noting that security standards have changed since then. He even states that “federalizing security after 9/11 in many cases just put the same people at the checkpoints just with a different employer.”
So what makes anyone think the exact same thing wouldn’t happen in reverse if we turned security screening back over to the same companies as before? Do we really think if we re-privatize the system, a whole brand new set of 40,000 people are going to show up to be security agents and replace all the apparently terrible current ones?
Also, keep in mind that private security screening firms had extremely high turnover in the old days. So is the plan to have nothing but new, inexperienced screeners manning our airport checkpoints around the country?
Privatization is not better. It’s just different.
There are several “privatize the TSA” talking points I often see bandied about that have everything to do with the TSA’s poor performance and nothing to do with whether a private firm would do any better.
For instance, Gary loves to point out that the TSA has never caught a terrorist, but that has no bearing whatsoever on whether a private firm’s performance would be better, worse, or the same. It’s also meaningless because the argument works just as well in reverse. I can point out that the TSA has never allowed a terrorist to commandeer a plane and it will be just as true and misleading.
Gary also lists a whole bunch of anecdotes about bad behavior by TSA agents. Does this mean a private firm wouldn’t have a single employee that would ever get out of line? Has that ever been true of a single private firm in any industry in the history of humanity?
But by all means, let’s look at a similar example. Prisons have been widely privatized around this country, so under Gary’s logic there shouldn’t be any examples of private prison employees behaving badly, right?
Another red herring is the idea that the TSA employees union is part of the problem. Well, I’ve seen absolutely no evidence to back up that contention, but even if it were true, why do we have to privatize the agency to get rid of the union? The union was specifically authorized by law when the TSA was created, so another federal law can easily unauthorize it without the need to hand over all functions to an outside firm, right?
Gary believes you can hold private companies accountable for their performance while the TSA will never be accountable. And yet according to media reports, somehow this past Memorial Day weekend was relatively free of major security delays. Why? Well, the public complained loudly to Congress, Congress complained loudly to the TSA, and resources were moved around. Isn’t that exactly the type of “accountability” we want to see?
When it comes to anything that is an inherent monopoly (you can’t personally choose which security firm you’re going to use when you arrive at the checkpoint), private firms are no more accountable than public ones. Do you feel your cable company is particularly accountable? How about your electric utility? Or your workplace health insurer whose lousy coverage you have no choice but to accept?
The basic issues won’t change with privatization.
The real problems here are pretty simple – more people are flying and Congress is providing less money to screen them. On top of that, the politicians and bureaucrats who set the standards under any system have to be responsive to a public that is not particularly rational.
Gary believes privatization will change things because the same agency shouldn’t be responsible for setting screening standards and for carrying out the screening itself. But under privatization, the federal government still controls the purse strings and still dictates what they want private companies to do for that money. This model has not exactly resulted in outstanding performance or thrifty budgets from the Department of Defense, so there’s no reason to think it would be better with airport security.
Additionally, Congress itself will still meddle, and Congress is not known for level-headed discussion of pretty much anything. The moment an incident occurs with a private screening company, what’s going to happen? The screening company will get fired… maaaaybe, assuming they even can be under their contract and there’s another screening company ready to take their place… and Congress will inevitably decide to institute another set of laws in an effort to prevent the previous tragedy.
It’s the overall mindset that causes these issues, and that mindset is demanded by us, the traveling public. So if you want to see the real problem that needs to be solved, look in the mirror, not at the TSA.
The Devil’s Advocate believes privatization is an ideological answer.
Let’s be clear here – the performance of the TSA is nowhere near acceptable right now. But that doesn’t mean the entire system has to be changed to make things better. Rather than pour more money into additional screeners, why don’t we offer a free or reduced cost signup period for PreCheck and get more people into the system who won’t require an extensive security check every time they fly? Or implement more services like CLEAR to speed things along?
And whatever happened to sorting people by urgency at checkpoints? Does anyone remember when airline representatives would stand at security and start calling people up to the front of the line by their departure times to insure those who needed to clear first would do so? It’s a simple solution that gets everyone to where they need to be when they need to be there, so why does it never seem to happen anymore?
Look, 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. Some people simply don’t like the government doing anything and those are usually the folks who want privatization, regardless of whether it works better or not. Others think private enterprise is evil and greedy and those people tend to want the government to handle things, again, regardless of the results.
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! And now we’re going streaking across the quad! Come on, guys! Guys?…Devil’s Advocate is a bi-weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by following him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.
Note from the editor: This is a travel blog. Keep the comments focused on travel. Feel free to discuss Gary and his views on travel, but comments about political parties, political organizations, and political donors will be deleted.