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Friday, May 20, 2016

Why Airport Security Will Always Be a Fiasco with TSA

It Was Never Going to Work

The long security lines at some of the nation’s major airports in recent weeks have been nuts. Over and over, we have seen that it was a big mistake for the Bush administration and Congress to nationalize airport screening back in 2001.

One of the issues playing out is the lack of workforce flexibility in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is a centralized, bureaucratic monopoly. I have writtenthat we should separate airport screening from the regulatory oversight of aviation security. We should move responsibility for passenger and baggage screening from TSA to the nation’s airports. The airports would then be free to contract screening to expert security companies.

Yesterday, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, affirmed my observations about the problems of centralized control and the rigid TSA bureaucracy:

I think one of the biggest takeaways that I have is the lack of transparency and a lack of local input that each of the airports and airline authorities have with the local TSA field rep director… There appears to be a line of non-communication centralized here in Washington.

[The TSA has] centralized and all the decisions are being made out of Washington with no flexibility on staffing decisions, that if they have local input from the airlines and airport authorities it could result in a lot of these problems. If you don’t know the peak airline times of when the planes are coming in, how can you possibly staff and have a model that makes any sense?

The flexibility issue is a huge problem we heard [about] from the airlines and airport associations in terms of the local director doesn’t have discretion over where to staff the TSO or TSA officer.

McCaul is right. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk Washington response when problems arise in society is to centralize power and control, as we saw after 9/11. That is nearly always a mistake. Even if central planning made sense in theory, members of Congress simply don’t have the time to oversee the vast empire of programs that they have accumulated.

Remarkably, the federal budget is 100 times larger than the average state government budget. Federal policymakers have no idea what’s really going in the hundreds of bureaus they have created. So, not surprisingly, the only time Congress tries to fix anything is when crises rise to the top of the news cycle, like now with airports.

McCaul is also right on one of the short-term fixes for the current airport mess: repurpose the 3,000 TSA “behavioral officers” that roam around airports, and add them to the TSA screening teams. Federal auditors have concluded essentially that those officers do little in terms of reducing risks, so let’s put them to work reducing congestion and serving the travelling public.

  • Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at Cato and editor of