In a column earlier this week, John Tierney of the New York Times suggests that current approaches to safeguarding airplanes are ineffective because the Transportation Safety Authority is bogged down with bureaucratic inertia and misfocussed Congressional mandates. The particular issue Tierney highlights is whether screening should consist of searching bags or of identifying people who behave suspiciously. His overall concern, however, goes beyond this one issue:
It’s not that the T.S.A.’s leaders don’t see the problem. Kip Hawley, who took over the agency last year, is a smart manager who has been trying to change the agency’s focus. He removed small scissors from the taboo list, and he has complained about all the time spent by screeners seizing cigarette lighters to comply with an order from Congress.
But he’s making little headway because he has inherited an unworkable mess created by Congress after Sept. 11. It ignored the security model in Israel and much of Europe, where screening programs are run by airports under the guidance of a national agency. Instead, Congress ordered the T.S.A. to both supervise and run the screening programs itself.
The result has been a waste of billions of dollars on an unwieldy federal agency that’s become known as Thousands Standing Around. The T.S.A. should be trying to anticipate new terrorist tactics, like the bomb plot uncovered in England, but it had to raid its research budget to pay for the screening program, as Eric Lipton and Matt Wald reported in The Times.
I do not know whether Tierney and the sources he quotes are correct about screening bags versus screening people, but I do think there is only one way to find out: get the government out of the airplane security business and leave security matters to the airlines.
Now, this suggestion will strike many as lunacy. A standard assumption is that without government provided security measures, there will be no security provisions. Airlines, so this thinking goes, are only interested in profits. Security is expensive, so airlines will undersupply it to the determinent of their passengers and anti-terrorism efforts more generally.
In fact, airlines face strong incentives to make their planes safe. Consumers will refuse to fly on airlines that do not provide adequate safety. Pilots and flight attendants will do the same. And insurance companies will not insure airlines that fail to take adequate security precautions.
The real question, therefore, is whether a privatized system would be more effective than the current system? What exactly might a privatized system do differently?
The short answer is, we do not know. A crucial negative of government imposed "solutions" is shutting down the innovation and experimentation that would occur if the private sector were free to act.
But it is easy to imagine approaches that airlines might adopt if they could provide security in whatever manner they saw fit.
Some airlines might develop preferred flyer lists that allow individual passengers to submit to extensive background checks and then become eligible to board planes without waiting in long lines. The TSA has considered this approach, but so far it has not been implemented.
Some airlines might decide that the best approach is complete separation of passengers and baggage. That is, you fly on one plane while your bags fly on another, thereby elminating the risk of bombs in either checked or carry-on bags, at least for planes with many people on board.
Some airlines might utilize extensive air marshal programs.
Some airlines might utilize extensive profiling.
But what airlines would not do is spend countless hours screening people who pose no risk. They would not expend enormous resources screening checked luggage even while carrying cargo (packages sent by third parties who are not traveling on the planes) that is totally unscreened. And airlines would not pay inflated union wages to employees with minimal skills or training.
To be clear, no system can be entirely safe. A determined terrorist will occassionally find a way to beat any system.
But privatization will not only provide information about what works and what does not; it will do so in a far more efficient manner than the TSA and the government imposed system it operates.