Private Airport Security: Should We Go There?

I’ve been having great Twitter conversation today about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with one of my favorite podcasters, Ari Shaffir ( who has a new comedy special out -which he produced without a network- for only $5).

In essence, this is a debate about privatization of airport security. To sum up our conversation so far, it boils down to Jen thinks it would be bad and Ari thinks it would be good.

The Transportation Security Administration is in charge of security at most American airports and has been since a few months after September 11, 2001.  TSA agents are the people who tell you to take off your shoes, make you throw out your liquids, and feel you up if you refuse to go through the naked machine. TSA agents are also the people who randomly search/harass old ladies and autistic children in search of explosives we all know aren’t there. They all-to-often step over the line of what should be acceptable, fueled by power trips, lack of training, and pathetic paychecks.

But the function they serve in society with airplanes is a crucial one. Airplanes are the perfect things to blow up if you want to kill a bunch of people and make a statement. You blow up an airplane in flight; everybody dies. It’s not like on a bus or train where people can and do escape. On a plane, even if the flames don’t get you, the fall will. 100% accuracy. 9-11.

The question is, who do we trust to perform this function?

A private company could be owned by anybody. If we were to contract airport security, my first guess as to who would perform this function is a private security company kind of like Blackwater, because they are the companies providing security for the State Department.

Private security officers answer only to company, not country, and in order to keep their contracts, private companies often keep their problems like thefts and over-reach hidden. Bad press hurts profits. If a private security officer does something wrong, the worst repercussion we could reasonably expect for them is firing. Jail time would require the company to rat themselves out to the government, and why would they do that?

Also, there is no guarantee that a private security company would be owned and operated by Americans. The embassy that was attacked in Benghazi was being guarded by a small British security company. British Airlines, Air China, Korean Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Saudi Airlines… if they were responsible for hiring security, who might they hire?

We also need to take a look at motive. What’s a private company’s goal? Profit. They have an incentive, a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, to do their jobs as cheap as possible to collect the maximum amount of extra cash to hand out to Wall Street investors. And airlines would certainly be attracted to the lowest bidder if they, instead of taxpayers, were footing the bill.

But who are we kidding? Airlines won’t pay for security. Customers would pay for security. Add some extra padding to that fee though. You know… profit. It’s what they live for.

Private security was the system we had in place before September 11, 2001. Boston’s Logan International Airport had been having lots of problems with private security in years before hijackers armed with metal box-cutters made it through the airline-paid private security and destroyed the World Trade Center and all the lives within. We’ve seen the results private security produced.

But what about the TSA? Has it done better?

There are definitely problems with the TSA. TSA agents have been caught and prosecuted for stealing from us. TSA agents get real power trippy, pulling aside people and harassing them unnecessarily.  TSA agents have private rooms for extra harassment. They make you throw away your liquids, forcing you to buy water at airport prices inside the gate. Like most things in our government right now, it’s not functioning well, and the people aren’t happy.

But I think it has more promise than a private system. Here’s why:

TSA is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, so the boss of the entire TSA is the Director of Homeland Security. This person is appointed by the President of the United States, who is an elected official. Unlike in a private company, there is someone in the chain of command who has to answer to the people.

TSA agents are members of the government which means that when they steal or hurt someone in illegal ways, the government knows about it. The government has thrown their asses in jail. That’s a better incentive to resist the five-finger-discount than just being canned from a job you hated anyway.

TSA is American. There’s no way a U.S. government agency will be headed by foreign C.E.O. It just simply can’t happen.

TSA, and government in general, is run for the purpose of protecting the citizens of the United States. The United States does not exist to make money. It would have no reason to cut corners if funded properly by a responsible Congress (a key thing we’re missing right now).

Also, a big factor often overlooked in the TSA debate is that it is part of the Department of Homeland Security, a monster of a government agency that was only created a little over 10 years ago. It did not exist on September 11th. The Department of Homeland security gobbled up 22 agencies, including the TSA. It was the biggest reorganization of government in 50 years and it was done at a time when the American public was so shell-shocked by 9/11 and the run up to the Iraq War, that we hardly noticed. Adding to the problem was that it was done by the Bush administration, a group of people dedicated to privatization. The goal was consolidation; to make government “smaller”. How to make it work the best wasn’t really thought through and the employees of the new Department of Homeland Security were left with an enormous management task.

The massive merge hasn’t gone smoothly. Read the “Findings” section of this bill from last year (it’s not long) to get an idea of the problems they are still dealing with.

So yeah, TSA is a struggling agency controlled by a bigger agency that is struggling even more. This is what happens when you believe, like religiously believe, that government can’t function. You get elected, and your prophecy comes true.

But instead of throwing the whole program back into the hands (and profits) of the private sector, who has already proven they are not up to the task, how about we make our goal to make the government operated airport security BETTER?

Even if the corporations are more likely to feel us up with a smile.