Another TSA Battle Brewing, This Time Over Privatizing Airport Security (Part 2)

As I reported earlier, the latest TSA-related controversy is whether the agency should expand a program that allows airports to contract out security screening to private firms.

Image Credit: Tim Beach

The debate is mainly about costs: the TSA claims privately-operated screening is more expensive while the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure asserts that it costs significantly less. As I outlined in my previous post, there are problems with both estimates, especially the House Committee one, so for now I think the jury’s still out on the cost question.

I can’t believe I actually have to say this given that we’re talking about airplane security, but I don’t think money should be our primary consideration here. I don’t care which type of screening is cheaper if it doesn’t keep me safe (or if it involves extensive groping and general disregard for my desire not to be groped). Previous TSA studies only took a limited look at screener performance and the new House Committee study doesn’t analyze performance at all, probably because it is difficult to measure.

Here’s why we need to nail down a comparison of private and TSA-managed screening performance before we even start to look at costs:

With goods and services that are simple to measure, such as providing garbage pickup or manufacturing license plates, it’s easy to determine how well a government agency or private contractor is doing the job and at what cost. When the good or service in question is a complex one like education or healthcare, measuring success is much more difficult and it’s harder to hold an agency accountable for the quality of services it provides.

The performance measurement problem plays out differently for government agencies and private contractors. Government bureaucracy can hinder innovation and responsiveness, as we saw when the TSA refused to respond to public anger over invasive screening techniques. The million dollar question in that debate was a performance measurement question we didn’t have the answer to – was the TSA keeping us safer (i.e. performing better) by doing the screenings? If we had hard data showing that the answer was no, these screening techniques would already be gone.

When private firms provide publicly funded services that are difficult to measure, the problem has less to do with bureaucracy and more to do with profits. Government agencies have a tendency to operate up to their allotted budgets, while private contractors try to kept their costs as low as possible to maximize profit. When it’s hard for us to hold private firms accountable for their performance, their incentive to skimp on costs is greater. This is why privately-run prisons have encountered so many problems and, as the LA Times reminds us, it’s part of the reason the TSA was created in the first place.

The question right now shouldn’t be whether or not to privatize airport security screening. It should be how we can really measure performance of this task. Once that is determined, we can analyze whether private or TSA-managed screeners perform better, and factor in other concerns like cost and political ideology.

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