TSA: There’s No Reason Why Passenger Screening Can’t Be Safe And Expeditious

The current controversy and unhappiness regarding the TSA is understandable.  Prior to 9/11, passenger screening was the responsibility of the airlines.  At each airport, the carriers got together and one airline, acting on behalf of all of them, hired a screening company to staff the checkpoints.  There was no TSA, and it was the FAA which oversaw airport security.  The FAA job was to monitor and surveil the screening companies.

In the post 9/11 world, the TSA was created as part of the Department of Homeland Security and responsibility for all airport security was removed from the FAA.  And then the inevitable occurred…the TSA, over the ensuing 15 years, turned into just one more behemoth, dysfunctional government bureaucracy.  It also became unionized and about as flexible as a steel rod.  The net result has been customer, i.e. the traveling public, service that redefines lousy.

Now, let’s turn to the FAA, certainly an agency which has its problems, but which, in no small measure, is responsible for the safest airline system in the world.  The mission of the FAA is to control the nation’s airspace and, as part of that, to regulate and inspect airlines.  Nobody in their right mind asserts the FAA has failed in this mission.  Certainly the safety record in the United States bespeaks of its success.  That’s not to say that the FAA doesn’t have problems.  It does, but that discussion is for another day.

Keeping the foregoing in mind, let’s forget about abolishing the TSA.  How about we use the FAA as a model.  Take the day to day screening function away from TSA and put it in the hands of the airports who can hire the best company for their airport.  The TSA, like the FAA, will establish minimum standards and procedures, and then monitor, surveil and regulate the companies.  The big difference is that there will be greater flexibility at individual airports and, if a company disappoints, its contract won’t be renewed.

This system has worked pretty well with the FAA and the airlines they regulate.  The FAA sets minimum standards (which virtually every airline exceeds and which the FAA has to approve) and then monitors, inspects, surveils and regulates those airlines to insure they meet those standards.  The FAA doesn’t build, maintain or fly the airplanes.  There’s no reason why the TSA should do the screening.

The TSA should focus on this oversight role. It should get out of the day to day screening business, i.e. stop flying the airplanes.  The TSA has pretty much proven it isn’t good at everything.  It’s time for them to recognize that fact and let the example of the FAA’s relationship with the aviation industry in this country provide a path for the way forward.  There is no reason why the highest level of safety in the screening process cannot co-exist with expedited lines.

The biggest obstacle to fixing the problem is the TSA itself, which seems to think that their hiring 800 more screeners is the answer.  The answer is not a “band-aid,” but rather radical surgery on a bloated, out of control bureaucracy.