Privatizing the Transportation Security Administration

December 6, 2013

After more than 10 years with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), it is clear that the federal takeover of airport screening was a mistake, says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Prior to the nationalization of airport screening in 2001, passenger and baggage screening was performed by private companies on behalf of airlines and was overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The TSA was created in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What exactly does the TSA do? Besides running the security screenings, the agency of 62,000 employees oversees rail, transit, highway and pipeline security, in addition to analyzing intelligence and running the Federal Air Marshal Service. In 2013, the TSA had an annual budget of $7.9 billion.

The TSA has demonstrated a number of shortcomings:

  • After the government's takeover of security screening, auditors found that TSA screening was no better than private screening. Moreover, there have been a number of screening failures. In a series of 2006 tests, screeners in Los Angeles and Chicago failed to catch 75 percent and 60 percent of fake explosives, respectively.
  • During the first 10 years of the TSA, there were 25,000 security breaches at American airports.
  • Nearly 400 TSA workers have been fired for stealing from passengers' bags.
  • Moreover, the high turnover rate at the agency has cost the United States a considerable amount of money. Between 2002 and 2011, the TSA spent $2.4 billion solely on the hiring and training of new staff members.
  • The TSA has been incredibly expensive. The agency spent $30 million on 207 machines that were supposed to detect explosives, but the machines had not been properly tested and did not work as intended, and they were put into storage. Similarly, a Dallas TSA facility was inspected in 2012 and $184 million worth of security equipment was found sitting idle.

The TSA should be abolished. Airports should be allowed to take control of security screening (responsible for two-thirds of the TSA budget) and allow private companies to bid for contracts.

Privatized airport screening is used successfully in many other countries, and the United States should follow suit. Other agencies can take over the remaining TSA functions. With these reforms, costs to taxpayers would be reduced while the quality of aviation security would be improved.

Source: Chris Edwards, "Privatizing the Transportation Security Administration," Cato Institute, November 19, 2013.

 

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