Friday, February 4, 2011
As NPR reports here, the Transportation Security Administration does not want to hire private screeners to work at any more airports, although the private contractors will continue their work at the 16 airports at which they currently operate. Florida Republican Representative John Mica (pictured right) protests, claiming that TSA is bloated and we would be better off with private screeners, given that "[n]early every positive security innovation since the beginning of TSA has come from the contractor screening program."
What innovations could Representative Mica be thinking of? I wonder what the result would be if you asked airline travelers to name their favorite innovations in airport security in the past ten years. Daniel Solove has been tracking these developments over at Concurring Opinions at some time. Here is his post about standard TSA procedures. How have things improved in the past few years? Well, here is Solove's more recent post on the subject. Is this the sort of innovation about which the good Congressman is crowing?
Not for nothing, NPR notes that Congressman Mica has received campaign donations from some of the private companies that are trying to win contracts to provide airport screeners. A spokesman denies that such donations have played any role in the Congressman's position on this issue.
The Kansas City Star now reports that Senator Roy Blunt (pictured left) is also sponsoring legislation that would encourage the use of private screeners. The legislation is said to be a response to the TSA's denial of a request by the Springfield-Branson airport to switch to private screeners. The request reportedly came after two reports of federal employees being neglectful of passengers at the airport, causing delays that resulted in people missing their flights.
According to the TSA's website, the standards for screening are identical, whether the screeners are private or federal: "TSA sets the security protocols and standards for all commercial airports nationwide, to include airports participating in [the private screeners programs]." That would suggest that one's experience of private screeners should not be significantly different from one's experience of federal screeners. But perhaps the private screeners are cheaper? No, according to TSA:
ATSA mandates private screening companies to provide compensation and other benefits to their screeners that are not less than the level of compensation and other benefits provided to comparable Federal Government personnel. TSA conducted an extensive review of the private contractors and found overall the private screening companies are providing pay and benefits that equal or exceed the pay and benefits provided by the Federal Government.
But since the TSA has to monitor the private screeners, and because there are transactions costs involved in negotiating the terms under which the private contractors serve, it seems likely that private screeners actually add costs, even if they are not better paid. And then what of legal wrangling if there are allegations of misconduct by a private screener?
So, the argument for private screeners must run something like this. Private companies are preferable because competition leads to better efficiency and better customer service. In addition, private companies might have more rigorous hiring practices that ensure a higher quality of personnel. Is there any empirical basis to support such reasoning or are there other justifications for preferring private screeners?