Half of the U.S. public believes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) makes flying safer—and half don’t. There’s plenty of evidence that TSA airport screeners are not effective, but worse still, the agency is rigging the system to make sure it is the only option for airport security. It doesn’t have to be this way.
My fellow Security Debrief contributor Gary Becker made the point in a recent post that the Screening Partnership Program (SPP) could enhance aviation security while also supporting increased commercial activity, which are both good for the country. I agree; however, there’s a more fundamental reason to encourage this program, and it comes down to fair competition.
SPP is a program for privatized passenger screening, where airports can “opt out” of TSA screening by contracting with a company to provide passenger and baggage screening commensurate with TSA standards and under the oversight of the federal government. The legal foundation for this was laid down in the very legislation that established TSA, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The act authorized a pilot program to test the idea of privatized screening, and in 2004, the program was formally established.
To date, there are 21 airports operating under SPP; there are more than 700 commercial airports in the United States. Does that ratio seem odd to you? It should.
In November last year, SPP Director Carolyn Dorgham testified on the origin of the SPP pilot program…and then her testimony neglected to mention the next decade of SPP operation and instead jumped all the way to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which demanded that TSA change its cost-estimating methodology for determining whether TSA is cheaper than switching to private sector screeners. TSA’s calculus on whether to grant an SPP application is based in part on costs, and the agency does this by comparing proposed costs from contractors against TSA’s estimated costs for the same service.
When it comes to cost, there is reason to question TSA’s cost-benefit analyses because of the incentives that drive each of the stakeholders in the equation. Private companies are incentivized to determine real costs, as those costs become an operating budget. Propose too little and the company will not make money; propose too much and the company is uncompetitive. Meanwhile, TSA is incentivized to determine costs that outcompete a private company (to protect budget and staff), and given a slew of Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, TSA’s method for estimating its costs is not good.
The decade of SPP operation that Director Dorgham failed to mention during her November testimony included a lot of suspicious number-fudging and bureaucratic delays that in effect, if not in intention, prevented a wide embrace of SPP. It got so bad that by 2011, TSA was rejecting all requests from airports to engage SPP. What is more, as GAO states:
“While multiple congressional committees have sought improved information on the cost effectiveness of the SPP to oversee the program, TSA has not reported cost comparisons between federal and private screening at SPP airports to policy makers. Since 2013, TSA has prepared comprehensive annual reports that include, among other things, a comparison of actual private costs with estimated federal costs. According to TSA officials, they have not shared these reports with Congress because they are developed for internal use.”
Are you starting to get the picture of what’s going on here? TSA is doing an end-run around the free market, leveraging their unique role as competitor and application reviewer to ensure the private sector cannot participate, and the agency then shields itself from oversight by ignoring congressional demands for more information. And who comes to TSA’s side to defend this approach? A union, incentivized to reject SPP so as to protect the jobs of its members. (Note: Dorgham said TSA’s cost comparison information will be shared with Congress in the agency’s “Semi-Annual Screening Partnership Program Report.” We’ll see.)
This would be troubling enough if it all boiled down to costs and authority, but there is another factor to consider: TSA airport screeners are in many ways failing in their mission. The list of TSA’s screening issues is long. In June 2015, it was revealed that TSA screeners failed 95% of the time during Red Team tests that secreted illicit items through security. It would seem airport screening is nothing but security theater. And when it comes to SPP, TSA cannot even meet the security standards that private companies must meet under SPP. Arguably, if TSA were a private company bidding for an SPP contract, they would be rejected in terms of costs and effectiveness.
The truth is that SPP yields cheaper and more flexible security operations and, as arguably the biggest benefit to the disgruntled traveling public, if the private sector screeners insult someone, infringe on their rights, or treat them less than fairly (as an endless amount of TSA horror stories reveal), they can be fired, immediately. It is extremely difficult to fire a government employee, and the process for doing so is mired in bureaucracy. It leaves the traveling public with no recourse and no alternatives.
Now, TSA isn’t all bad, because TSA’s mission isn’t all about airport screening. It is a counterterrorism agency, and while there is arguably not sufficient attention to other U.S. transportation systems, TSA has done important work helping to protect the country. One instance where TSA collaborated with industry was the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), a thoughtful approach to meeting a terrible federal law, “100% air cargo screening.” TSA was motivated to develop and implement this public-private program because the costs and effort associated with TSA going it alone were so insurmountable it would have brought domestic and international commerce to a near halt. Perhaps TSA should use a similar cost-benefit approach to airport screening.
TSA has an important role to play. We face very real, persistent threats from adaptive adversaries who would use planes as weapons of mass destruction if they could. But TSA is failing in its airport screening mission while also prohibiting competition that could deliver better security and lower costs. It’s time to let private sector screeners take a shot at it.