Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Should the U.S. Privatize Airport Security?

While air traffic control privatization was the en vogue idea for reforming U.S. aviation policy for most of the past year, developments over the past few weeks have shifted attention to the growing problem of airport security lines as the country enters the summer travel season. Reports of three-hour waits to pass through security, and stranded passengers have prompted promised improvements from the Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.), including expedited hiring and increased overtime. These small measures will likely earn the embattled agency little reprieve from mounting criticism on all sides. An undercover investigation last year found airport security screening to be frightfully ineffective at preventing weapons from being smuggled onto aircraft. Meanwhile, the agency has recently been beset by complaints of mismanagement and retaliation against whistle blowers. This backdrop leaves the T.S.A. with a multitude of problems to correct and little outside confidence in the agency's ability to fix everything at once. Opinion pieces have begun to call for replacement of T.S.A. operations with private security screening contractors as is already done at 22 U.S. airports, and even to question the reason for the agency's existence. Congress has been highly critical during hearings into the T.S.A.'s ongoing struggles and even airlines, which have in the past been understandably restrained in vocally complaining about the post 9/11 security apparatus, have encouraged disgruntled passengers to vent their frustration at the agency as opposed to the airlines.

Many of the arguments for privatizing air traffic control apply equally to the T.S.A. As with air traffic control, a conflict of interest exists in that the agency charged with writing and enforcing rules is also responsible for carrying them out, requiring the agency to police itself to a degree. Critics have depicted the T.S.A. as a sprawling, difficult-to-manage bureaucracy, a common argument in privatization fights. For those more inclined to blame Congress than the agency itself, the T.S.A.'s current problems can be attributed to some of the same concerns about unreliable and politicized funding that is raised when it is suggested that air traffic control would benefit if isolated from the general appropriations process. And as with air traffic control, there are many successful foreign examples of alternative models for organizing airport security screening operations. If anything, the argument for privatization might be stronger with respect to airport security, because decision-making could be more localized than is possible with air traffic control. While there has not been any indication yet that congress intends to seriously consider privatizing airport security, if this summer becomes the public relations disaster that the past few weeks portend, it could be the catalyst that makes airport security privatization next year's fashionable aviation policy idea.


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