I read with some interest the recent op-ed in the LA Times entitled, “Let’s name long TSA lines after the politicians who caused them.” Not only do I enjoy a good piece of snarky writing from time to time, but the subject of TSA screening lines is one where Security Debrief has served as a forum for robust, informed debate over the past few months.
Sadly, I was disappointed after wading through the op-ed, penned by Jim Tierney of the Manhattan Institute, largely because there were no new solutions offered, other than the presumably tongue-in-cheek references to connecting politicians’ names to airport queues. I would have hoped Mr. Tierney would at least be true to the free-market principles of the Manhattan Institute by suggesting that airports have the ability to sell the naming rights to the airport security lines, but alas not even that appeared in his anti-TSA screed.
Of course, it is a frequently used writing technique to use humor to make a serious point, a method I came to appreciate as a young man by reading Mark Twain stories. Tierney is a prolific writer and has presented some rather controversial, thought-provoking ideas in a compelling manner. Unfortunately, the level of original thinking in his thoughts about New York’s Times Square seems to be missing in his recent LA Times op-ed about TSA.
What is clear is his belief that TSA should not have been created by Congress. What is not clear is why he believes that a private security screening operation would be systemically better, short of claiming that some unidentified study at LAX and SFO resulted in better scores at LAX. If those studies are recent ones, we would love to see them. An LA Times story from 2010 with the headline, “Los Angeles International is rated one of the nation’s worst airports for customer satisfaction” noted that passengers at LAX were only slightly more frustrated than passengers at SFO.
“Among the largest airports, Los Angeles International ranked 18th out of 19 airports in overall satisfaction, with a rating of 616 on a 1,000-point scale. The passengers who were surveyed gave LAX below-average marks on accessibility to the airport, including parking, ease of checking in and the amount of time it took to get through security.
“San Francisco International Airport came in 13th, with a rating of 647 points. Passengers gave SFO average ratings for accessibility and ease of checking in but below-average marks for security.”
Saying, like Mr. Tierney does, that SFO passengers are happier than LAX passengers because LAX has TSA screeners (i.e., government employees) may be technically accurate but nevertheless it seems to be highly misleading when placed in the context of the influence of other factors. In the JD Power study about airport satisfaction mentioned in the 2010 LA Times story, there were at least 12 other airports with a higher rating than SFO, and I bet many of them had TSA screeners.
I’m not suggesting that a private company would be better or worse in providing high-quality screening services than TSA provides. Rather, my concern is with the foundation upon which Tierney builds the case for privatization. It would be equally fair, using Tierney’s logic, to conclude that many individuals would prefer to have Malaria over Ebola, but the reality is that most people simply don’t want to be sick in the first place.
What TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger has tried to make clear in his recent Congressional testimony is that a private screening contractor does not work for the local airport. Rather, they work for TSA at the local airport. There is a huge difference in these prepositions. The private company is a contractor to TSA. Let that sink in for a moment. Under the Partnership Screening Program, the local airport can ask TSA to contract out the screening function, but the contract itself, awarded based on competitive procurement rules, is between TSA and the private screening company. And the standards the private screening company must meet to succeed are identical to the ones that TSA screeners must meet.
Tierney also attempts to claim a direct relationship between bad customer experiences at TSA checkpoints and the fact that the Obama Administration allowed TSA screeners to unionize. Personally, I was opposed to the unionization effort, but I have yet to find an instance where there is a correlation between union membership and a security failure. If there is one, I hope a loyal reader will let me know.
What I do know is that the airline with the most consistently high customer satisfaction scores on any survey conducted over the past 15 years is Southwest Airlines. Mr. Tierney likely knows that their workforce is unionized – yep, all of their pilots, flight attendants and ramp workers. Yet, somehow Southwest has been able to reap thousands of loyal customers who rave about their service without the union/non-union issue ever becoming part of the debate. That is one reason why, when op-ed writers like Mr. Tierney raise the issue, it comes across as a “red herring” to me – designed to inflame passions without adding substance to the policy debate.
Airport security personnel, whether private or public employees, have a difficult task. They must be “right” in every decision they make to prevent another 9/11 type of disaster. They deserve our thanks, instead of our derision. Let’s save that for the op-ed or blog writers after whom we might name paper recycling containers, thereby performing a truly useful public service.