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Liberalization of Airport Frisking: Federal versus Private Security Screeners

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Tags Free MarketsThe Police StateInterventionismMonopoly and Competition

12/09/2010Cristian Gherasim

It may seem odd to associate an invasive, property-denying measure like frisking with the principles of the free market. There's little room for individual sovereignty when it comes to national security — at least that's how the government thinks and acts: we are guilty until proven innocent; individuals aren't rational enough to make decisions about their well-being, so government officials have to step in. This is how the United States has acted since the 9/11 attacks.

Is there an alternative to this Big Brother approach to managing homeland security? I think there is: private defense agencies offering competitive services on an open market.

Recently, an airport in Orlando, Florida, has announced that it is considering ditching the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), reviving the debate about whether or not it is appropriate to have a private company instead of the TSA screen passengers.

Should customers and markets dictate who attends to national-security needs? If you look at sensitive public-interest industries like transportation, quality security service can only be provided by those who are under market pressure and depend on a wide customer base for their survival.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, governments all over the world increased airport security. The US Congress, in a hasty overreaction to that tragic day, gave the job of screening passengers and luggage to a new federal agency, the TSA. This has led to a massive bureaucracy that has bloated the system and created more problems. The American taxpayers now pay for more than 50,000 airport security screeners. The TSA has also requested nearly $8 billion in funding for 2011. In spite of all these expenses, the quality of airport screening has declined, as the underwear-bomber incident has shown.

The TSA has a severe conflict of interest because it serves as both the aviation-security regulator and the provider of key security. Who's watching the watchmen? When it comes to baggage and passenger screening, the TSA is regulating itself. This is the same recipe for disaster found in every state monopoly: unaccountability and inflexibility. And as with any bureaucracy, the TSA's natural incentive is to hide errors and make itself look good.

Having federal screeners also fragments airport security: airport perimeters are managed by airports and not the TSA. This leads to security gaps that allow incidents like the Christmas bomber. In Europe, most airports have hired certified, private security firms to do their screening, making each airport responsible for every aspect of its own security.

Having the federal government in charge of security screening in airports also means that the taxpayers are stuck with much of the cost. A market-orientated strategy would have played out much better, with security fees on tickets and airline charges covering the complete cost of airport safety. This would mean that the service providers are paid by consumers and accountable to them alone. When this sort of accountability is no longer part of the equation, customer complaints skyrocket — as does the risk of dangerous mistakes.

The recent pat-down controversy echoes such general discontent with TSA employees. Public opinion considers private screening companies to be far more responsive. If an individual is truly performing under par, a private company is able to react more swiftly than the federal government. With a private company, if something happens — say a weapon gets through — that employee is gone the next day. If you don't perform, you're out. It's not a job for life, as federal jobs sometimes seem to be.

So, how will private contractors improve security and keep the airport customer happy? First, private defense will decentralize security, which means letting each airport implement its own procedures, fitting its own needs, under loose government supervision. As Larry Dale, president of the Sanford Airport Authority in Orlando, told CNN, "Airports are unique … one size doesn't fit all."

Second, the cost of airport security should be paid by those who use airports — airlines and passengers. Like any other private and competitive enterprise, private screening companies are wired to consumer needs and demands. For example, in order to avoid overcrowding, private screeners can have more flexible staffing levels to meet an airport's varying needs. Unlike the federal government, they could expand their ranks when passenger loads triple during the summer and contract when fewer people are traveling in the winter. It's obvious that the ability to adjust the number of screeners quickly leads to more efficient screening and shorter waits, which translates into satisfied customers and safer flights.

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