Privatize The TSA?

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who’s been spending a lot of time in airports recently, wonders why we need government-provided airport security to begin with:

Instead of trying to fix or adjust or moderate TSA airport screening procedures to make them less abusive or slightly more tolerable, I say it is time to turn airport screening and security over to those who should be doing it in the first place: the airlines.

We all want to be safe when we fly. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that the TSA doesn’t seem to answer to anyone. They don’t really care how intrusive or offensive their procedures are, and they have no interest in letting us, the flying public, make our own decisions about how much privacy and dignity we are prepared to sacrifice in the name of security.

The airlines, however, who after all own the airplanes and are ultimately responsible for their passengers’ safety and comfort, have every reason in the world to care about security — and providing it in ways that are acceptable to their paying customers.

If allowed to take the responsibility for airport screening, airlines would turn to the best and brightest minds and entrepreneurs on the planet to develop technology and best practices that would certainly be more effective than whatever the government is doing now — and financial necessity would ensure that those procedures did not constitute abuse and unacceptable invasions of our privacy and our bodies.

On a more fundamental level, there doesn’t seem to be much justification for airport/airline security to be the responsibility of the Federal Government. Yes, it’s true that both are most likely high on the list of terrorist targets. However, as history in Israel and elsewhere shows us, so are shopping malls and pizza parlors, yet nobody is seriously suggesting that we federalize the nation’s force of mall cops. At least not yet.

Johnson goes on:

Certainly, like many other aspects of our lives and businesses, the government may be compelled to establish minimum standards and criteria for airport security; however, let entrepreneurs and the marketplace figure out how to meet those standards — rather than bureaucrats. The result, I am absolutely confident, will be safer air travel, more efficient airports, lower costs, and a lot less officially-sanctioned touching.

Now, it’s entirely possible that a private airport security provider could end up being as bad as the TSA. The difference is that if there were multiple security services competing with each other, airports and airlines would be encouraged to look for companies that cost less, waste less time, create less embarrassment, and don’t make the traveling experience the nightmare that it has become for many people. Additionally, private security forces would not have the same immunity from prosecution that employees of a government agency do, although Congressman Ron Paul has introduced a bill in Congress designed to remove that immunity from TSA employees. Most importantly, though, a private security provider would be answerable to the airport authority and the airlines for whom customer satisfaction is as important as security, not bureaucrats and politicians in Washington for whom the primary concern is making sure they don’t get blamed if there’s another terrorist attack.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, National Security, Quick Takes, Terrorism, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    “it is time to turn airport screening and security over to those who should be doing it in the first place: the airlines.”

    The reason we have the TSA in the first place is that the airlines didn’t want the cost burden of providing security and so they were quite happy to turn it over to the federal government. They got what they wanted and now it’s come back to bite them. So be it.

  2. Robert in SF says:

    I think that if we had private security selected and paid by the airlines, there would be numerous concerns and considerations to be aware of:

    1. The airlines wouldn’t manage them. The most cost effective and less onerous path would be to outsource the security to one of those large security firms, a la the classic Blackwater and their ilk. Large, monopolies would develop, very quickly, based on the unique needs that comes with airport security, such as the technology for x-rays, metal detection, hands on experice with security, etc. And this is only the front of house security. Who’s handling the security for the service persons for inside the airport (airline personnel and their outsourced services)? Bigger question that’s under the radar now…we’ll see how the terrorists try to get in next.

    2. There would most likely be all kinds of civil law suits coming from interactions with private security, but the airlines would solve that by implementing mandatory arbitration agreements you have to sign to fly And with the limited number of airlines at airports that service their hubs and regional locations, it would have the same effect as being a monopoly at the airports for service and then we have the trials and tribulations that comes with that situation and no remedy as the free market isn’t really free in this case.

    4. The air is public domain. The government administers aspects of travel in the air based on that, just as the government administers public transmission of radio and TV signals (and others) since the free market is not sophisticated enough to deal with that (or maybe too sophisticated…the “inside baseball” level of knowledge it takes to understand the players in the TV/radio field and the subsidiaries and corporate partnerships, etc. would then slip right into private security for something like this). I am not as eloquent in stating my point on this, so if discussion progresses here in the comments, I may (will!) have to clarify my point.

    Overall, the private market cannot solve this problem. It is not a market problem. (Eloquence disclaimer again).

  3. anjin-san says:

    > “it is time to turn airport screening and security over to those who should be doing it in the first place: the airlines.”

    Great, lets hire unemployed rent-a-cops that used to work at the mall. Good plan.

  4. anjin,

    Who do you think is working for TSA?

  5. Tano says:

    Johnson:”The result, I am absolutely confident, will be safer air travel, more efficient airports, lower costs, and a lot less officially-sanctioned touching.”

    The voice of an ideologue. These are ridiculous assertions. Air travel is extraordinarily safe. How could it possibly be safer? Where is the inefficiency? I know it is politically incorrect these days to say anything positive about the TSA, but the security lines at airports, in my experience, move extremely quickly and efficiently.

    Lower cost? Yeah, there he might have a point. A private company would surely try to pay workers McDonald’s wages. So all you elitists who seem to love to disparage the TSA agents – you would have an even less-qualified group of people to complain about.

    Less touching? Where does that come from? First off, any private company providing these services would not have it in their power to define the security measures to be taken – they would be hired to carry out the measures. Does Johnson really think that we should grant to private companies the essentially political task of defining what the security measures should be? Oh yeah, he is a libertarian, I forgot….

    Mataconis: “The difference is that if there were multiple security services competing with each other, airports and airlines would be encouraged to look for companies that cost less, waste less time, create less embarrassment, and don’t make the traveling experience the nightmare that it has become for many people.”

    Cost less. Yeah. Where will the savings come from (given that you first need to ADD to their expenses given that private companies would need to make profits for their investors). You could save money by having fewer security stations (probably not a decision under their control), fewer agents (thus slowing things down), or paying agents less (which accomplishes what exactly/). You too Doug, you are just spouting standard libertarian theory here, with no relationship to the real world.

    “waste less time, create less embarrassment”
    Once again, where do you get this notion that a privatized system would be allowed to have the responsibility to decide what levels of security to be implemented? Thats crazy. The airlines don’t want that – if there is an incident and lives are lost, they would be sued out the wazoo. The companies WANT the government to have this responsibility, to protect their own financial rear ends.

    “Most importantly, though, a private security provider would be answerable to the airport authority and the airlines for whom customer satisfaction is as important as security, not bureaucrats and politicians in Washington for whom the primary concern is making sure they don’t get blamed if there’s another terrorist attack.”

    This is just fantasy land. You think that airlines are not hugely motivated to avoid being blamed? The consequences for them for having blame for an event is far higher than it is for the government. That is why they do not want this responsibility. And you are seriously sitting there writing these word – “airlines for whom customer satisfaction is as important as security”. Thats a sentiment that surely will be recognized by all people who fly in America – the airlines that have so much concern for our sense of satisfaction.

  6. anjin-san says:

    > Who do you think is working for TSA?

    Rent a cops who we have some ability to influence via our elected representative in the government. If I need to, I can get a few minutes of face time with my congressional representative. I will go with that over the “customer service” experiences I have had with most major corporations.

  7. anjin-san says:

    I am curious about the genesis of the TSA ‘firestorm”. Where did this start? I saw Ann Coulter ranting about the TSA a while back (the resident Fox News analyst pretty much humiliated her on that one, to his credit). Was it her? Rush? Beck? There is almost certainly a single original source for this – some forensic blogging may be called for…

  8. MarkedMan says:

    This discussion happened 6 or 7 (?) years ago. The airlines viewed it as a way to save money, not change the procedures. They would have gotten their airport fees reduced by the amount equivalent to the TSA costs and replaced the TSA agents with ones who made no benefits and made minimum wage (as opposed to the $1 over minimum wage they make now, but with benefits). I know that its a Republican knee-jerk reaction that private industry always performs better than government, but I’m curious just how this is supposed to work in this case. Magical thinking?

  9. spencer says:

    Doesn’t anyone remember that the airlines had responsibility before 9/11?

    It was the same politicians that insisted tht the government take over airport security after 9/11.

    I wonder what Governor Johnston said back then?

    Why wouldn’t I be surprised if he was one of the loudest voices calling for the government taking over airport security after 9/11?

  10. anjin-san says:

    This crescendo of outrage emanating largely from the right over the TSA issue is fascinating. So very many blog posts and Fox News commentaries.

    A very short while ago there was a narrowly averted bombing attempt against air carriers by Al Queda. And it was virtually ignored by the right. Why? No political advantage, nothing to bash Obama or by extension, the government with.

    And then there is the issue that the Homeland Security apparatus was created by a Republican administration, with overwhelming support from the right. Many Democrats, or America hating terrorist symphathisers, as the Glenn Becks of the world were referring to them as at the time, warned about the inevitable erosion of civil liberties that would ensue, but were shouted down.

    There is also the issue that many on the right deny that there is even such a thing as a right to privacy, but apparently it is other people they feel don’t have that right. Seems they themselves feel entitled to it…

  11. The problem is right now is that there’s no incentives to provide good airport security. If security is overly stringent, it’s not the TSA that loses customers. If security is overly lax, it’s not the TSA that gets killed. We need to setup security so that both responsibilities are addressed. Putting the airlines in charge will assure this, but only if we also repeal the post 9/11 law that eliminated airline liability for security failures.

  12. I am curious about the genesis of the TSA ‘firestorm”. Where did this start? I saw Ann Coulter ranting about the TSA a while back (the resident Fox News analyst pretty much humiliated her on that one, to his credit). Was it her? Rush? Beck?

    I think it was simply the introduction of the current policies. I have seen responses from conservative and liberal bloggers of equal strength and proportion (which is typically not the case when a story emerges from Rush, et al. Indeed, a friend of mine of liberal persuasion posted his own negative experience with the pat-downs this week flying between DC and Boston which included a TSA agent place his hand inside the waist of his jeans.

    As such, I think that this firestorm has some reality to it and is not just a media creation.

    Speaking for myself, I have long been unhappy with the general way that the TSA treats me when I fly and so these new policies have simply given me further reasons to be concerned.

  13. This crescendo of outrage emanating largely from the right over the TSA issue is fascinating. So very many blog posts and Fox News commentaries.

    I am actually a tad surprised by the number of rightward commentaries on this subject. I was especially surprised to see Krauthammer be so negative about it. I do think that Weigel has a point about GOP outrage now that the Dems run TSA.

    Still (and perhaps I am wrong), but I don’t see this story as being as much just an outrage of the right the way you are characterizing it.

  14. I do think that Weigel has a point about GOP outrage now that the Dems run TSA.

    There’s more than a whiff of racism in the GOP outrage. They continue to have no problem with torture, show trials, warrantless searches and seizures, etc. At least as long as only muslims are the targets of these abuses. Indeed, if you listen to the subtext in most of the complaints about the TSA, it’s not objection to the methods per se, merely a complaint that they are being practiced on everyone. If the TSA would stick to sexually assaulting arab women, the GOP would be cheering them on.

  15. anjin-san says:

    > I don’t see this story as being as much just an outrage of the right the way you are characterizing it

    I tend to pay more attention to commentary from the right, my take may well be skewed.

  16. @anjin-san:

    I must confess as to being a bit surprised about the rightward backlash, given the degree to which the American right is so pro-security. Of course, the change in partisan control of the exec is no lost on me, either.

    However, I will allow that it may be a bigger deal (in terms of volume–in both senses of the word) on the rightside of the commentariat than I think it is (vice the rest of the commentariat).