A better way than the TSA

The Improving America's Security Act recently passed by Congress allows the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) airport screeners to unionize. This bill could add about 50,000 dues-paying members to union rolls while breathing new life into TSA's unofficial slogan: Thousands Standing Around.

The White House has threatened to veto the legislation because it claims that collective bargaining will destroy the TSA's flexibility. And according to the White House, "flexibility is ... how the ... TSA protects Americans while they travel." Who knew?

Cynics probably put "flexible" at the bottom of the TSA's attributes, right after "competent" and "fun-loving." But flexible or not, screeners have little effect on security. They are there to make passengers feel safe, not to actually keep them safe.

The TSA itself virtually confirms this. So does its parent bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the General Accounting Office (GAO). All three routinely test screeners' ability to intercept weapons smuggled through checkpoints. And screeners routinely flunk.

Washington's reaction is to tinker with department rules and spend millions on "better" technology. But a far better approach would be to scrap federally regulated flight security altogether. Private security firms would rely on effective antiterrorist tools rather than political correctness. They would actually keep us safe, not just make us feel that way.

The TSA was barely a year old when the GAO gave it failing marks in a report to the House Aviation Subcommittee in 2003. The committee's then chairman, John Mica (R) of Florida, summarized the findings: TSA was "still a very poor system" that "needs a dramatic overhaul." By April 2005, the agency's incompetence was so glaring that not one but two federal reports documented it. Both the GAO and the DHS found that screening was no more effective than before 9/11.

The TSA had gone from bad to worse a year later when undercover investigators packed their bags with common household items that explode when combined. They tried to smuggle these ingredients past the checkpoints at 21 airports – and they succeeded every time.

Barraged by criticism, DHS pooh-poohed the test's premises: "While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED [improvised explosive device], we find it highly implausible."

Months later, British police announced that they had foiled a plot to smuggle explosive components aboard planes, combine them en route, and blow up 10 transatlantic flights. That "highly implausible" scenario now has American passengers bagging their gels and liquids like tuna sandwiches.

You might suppose the TSA's failures would force it to improve. You'd be right: In 2006, screeners flunked only 20 of the TSA's 22 tests.

The TSA squanders vast amounts of flyers' time and $5 billion per year in taxes, so its failures are infuriating. But they're not surprising. After all, the agency responds to a problem that doesn't exist: terrorists thronging airports and boarding flights. The 9/11 attacks succeeded largely because of their novelty. The bad guys are smart enough to know this even if American bureaucrats aren't. That's why no TSA screener has found a single terrorist. Instead, they're frisking toddlers and wheelchair-bound seniors.

I'm not calling for a return to the way things were before 9/11, mind you. Even those privately employed screeners were heavily regulated by government. Indeed, federal officials have micromanaged aviation since its beginning. The resulting mess – long lines, high fares, inconvenient routes, and the arrogance that passes for service – is largely due to that interference.

Now, with the TSA as useless as an expired ticket, it's time to put federal control on the "Do Not Try" list. Why not let the free market protect aviation as it has our banking with ATM cards and PINs, our cars and homes with their burglar, smoke, and carbon-monoxide alarms, and even our telephones with caller-ID?

Privatized protection isn't a panacea, but it's better than the TSA. Without that federal straitjacket, security wouldn't be uniform and easy to game: each airline would adapt its policies to its own routes, destinations, and customers. Meanwhile, experts could design security systems without mandates from bureaucrats who understand paperwork and politics but not planes and passengers. Jets worth billions and the repeat business that comes only from satisfied, living customers will compel the airlines to provide potent protection.

One thing is certain: Any airline that treated flyers as the TSA does would lose business fast. And should.

Becky Akers is writing a book about the Transportation Security Administration.

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