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How the Nationalization of Airport Security has Hurt America

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The recent hullabaloo about the New York “car bomber” serves as another reminder of how plangently stupid the no-fly list is. The individual who attempted to blow up an SUV in the middle of time square was able to board an airplane, even though he was on the no-fly list, because airlines were only required to their update lists ever 24 hours. While the system has been changed to require airliners to update lists every 2 hours now, there is a much more pervasive problem with the status quo. It’s the entire airport security system. After the nationalization of airport security by Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airport security has become less effective, more expensive, and ultimately made American citizens less safe.

The major mistake was made on November 19th, 2001. In the wake of the tragic and horrible events of 9/11, there was significant pressure to change airport security. Before the attacks airport security was contracted out by the airlines to private screening firms who were responsible for security checkpoints that passengers encountered before boarding an aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set the standards and requirements that the private contractors had to adhere to in order to provide their security service. But in an effort standardize and introduce continuity nationwide, the TSA was created and assumed all airport security responsibilities. Taken at face value it all sounds logical and pragmatic, but the evidence says the complete opposite.

A common way that security is tested is by spontaneous weapons tests in which passenger impersonators attempt to walk through security checkpoints with weapons and explosives. Private screeners strove for a detection rate of 95%, their standard falling between 80-90% detection. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘only 80% detection? No wonder the terrorist were able to hijack those planes.’ But that is simply not true. In fact, the weapons used to commandeer the planes were short knives and box cutters, objects that were the permitted given the FAA governmental regulations. In fact, the 9/11 commission report stated, even if the items had been detected, they would have been permitted and “returned to the owner.” The solution was to change the regulations, not eradicate the system. But the bigger point is how effective the TSA is not. A top TSA official stated (on the condition of anonymity) that “we believe we can get the true pass rate close to 65 percent.” The Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office and the Government Accountability Office more optimistically stated that the failure rate was 25%. Regardless of which numbers are truly correct, these statistics manifest how security has diminished. The new system is less effective at catching banned substances than the old.

And the most insane part of the equation is how much more we are spending! In 2001, private-sector provided airport security was a $700 million a year business. The TSA’s annual budget is around $6 billion. We are paying more (MUCH MUCH more) for less efficacious security. And this money is vital for national security, it could instead be use to help the FBI and CIA fight terrorism before it reaches our airports.

Given this data, it’s clear that the private firm security system is superlative to the TSA in every regard. And don’t get me wrong, I usually love government takeovers (I think the Axe and Palm should be nationalized, can someone say government cheese?), but when it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. Just think about it; if any firm in the private sector failed 35% of tests, they would be out of business. In the old system the airlines had more incentive than anyone else to ensure that a proper security apparatus was in place (it was their image and business at stake), and the same incentives existed for the security firms. The private system was doing a better job. And in same way in which we trust Raytheon and Lockheed Martin as defense contractors to provide for our military, we can trust private contractors for airport security, especially if they are more vigilant and demand less of taxpayers. The TSA has put in place a large bureaucratic system that is less accountable, less effective, and has less pressure placed on it to succeed. As hard as it is for me to admit this, we need to let the free market produce the best security.

Farbod Faraji ’11
Contact Farbod Faraji at [email protected]

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