Another TSA Battle Brewing, This Time Over Privatizing Airport Security (Part 1)

Image Credit: Tim Beach

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) just can’t catch a break these days. Fliers are still upset about invasive scanning technologies, Republicans have set their budget-slashing sights on the agency’s funding, and now the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, chaired by Representative John L. Mica (R-FL), has issued a report slamming the TSA for halting the privatization of airport security.

Some background: At most airports, passenger and baggage screenings are conducted by TSA employees. The Screening Partnership Program (SPP), however, allows some airports to contract with private firms to conduct screenings in accordance with TSA standards and under TSA oversight, but TSA froze the program in January with little explanation as to why. A 2008 TSA study found that privatized screening at SPP airports cost 17% more and was not significantly more effective than TSA-managed screening. In response to a 2009 GAO review requested by Rep. Mica that identified several weaknesses in the original study design, TSA revised its cost estimates in January 2011 and found private screening to be just 3% more expensive.

Now the House Transportation Committee has released its own report claiming that the TSA fudged the numbers and, based on a comparison of the privately-staffed screening at the San Francisco airport (SFO) and the TSA-staffed screening at the Los Angeles airport (LAX), private screening is cheaper and more efficient than TSA screening.

Unfortunately, what the House Committee has produced is not an evaluation of privately- and publicly-managed airport screening systems. It is a comparison of data from two airports, one of which happens to use private screening and one of which doesn’t, that attributes all differences in screening costs and performance to the private or public management of the screening systems, with no consideration for the many other factors that might account for these differences (such as the age of the technology being used, the layout of the screening areas, or the type of passengers being screened). To point out just one major factor that I didn’t even see mentioned in the report: 15 million passengers on international flights pass through LAX each year, compared to 8 million at SFO, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. I imagine having nearly twice as many international passengers to screen might slow down your efficiency a bit.

The report goes on to make generalizations, based on this very shaky, limited data, about potential cost-savings from a nation-wide conversion to private screening. Unfortunately, the unfounded claim that privatizing airport security could save $1 billion over five years is now getting media coverage, when the truth is we really don’t know which system is better or cheaper.

A post on The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Foundry glosses over the study’s serious weaknesses and claims in bold text that, “SPP saves taxpayer dollars,” and, “[p]rivate screeners are more efficient.” I’m not sure what caused the post’s author, Jena McNeill, to conclude, “The committee’s report makes a pretty compelling case… that privatization of screening functions makes absolute sense,” but I can pretty much guarantee that, if Rep. Mica asked the GAO to review his own committee’s report, they would tear it to shreds.

Tomorrow I’ll have Part 2 of this post, on why we shouldn’t jump too quickly to privatize airport security, regardless of any potential cost savings…

TSA Ignores More Cost-Effective Screening Model
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure // June 3, 2011

Aviation Security: TSA’s Revised Cost Comparison Provides a More Reasonable Basis for Comparing the Costs of Private-Sector and TSA Screeners
U.S. Government Accountability Office // March 4, 2011

Aviation Security: TSA’s Cost and Performance Study of Private-Sector Airport Screening
U.S. Government Accountability Office // January 9, 2009