Paul Pillar

The Ideological Approach to Aviation Security

Complaints about security screening of air travelers, which reached a crescendo during the recent holiday travel period, have spurred more talk about handing screening duties over to private contractors. Representative John L. Mica (R-FL), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is leading the charge. He has written to managers of 200 of the nation's largest airports to urge them to consider using private companies rather than the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This news leads to the thought, “Wait a minute—doesn't this just undo what the nation did with aviation security several years ago?” Yes, it does. TSA was established as one of the responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which the terrorists and their knives boarded aircraft after passing through screening then run by private contractors.

Two things are going on here, besides forgetfulness about the recent past. One is change for the sake of change, as a response to whatever is the latest problem or unpleasantness. Unhappiness about the security procedures is up, so more people are inclined to think that some sort of change ought to be made.

The other thing is an ideologically based belief that the private sector simply does things better than any government agency—in just about any endeavor, be it aviation security or anything else. Especially with the political shift to the right and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, we are hearing more of this theme as applied to a broad range of governmental activities. The belief about effectiveness grows out of a general preference for less government, and both the beliefs and the preferences get expressed, as E.J. Dionne observes in his column this week, at an abstract level, with little or not reference to the specifics of individual programs.

Some specific mistaken beliefs, such as the notion that it is very hard to fire a government employee for poor performance, underlie the general belief about effectiveness. The manager of the Kansas City airport says, “Unlike a government job, these contract employees can be removed immediately with poor performance, attitude, or unsuitability.” In fact, as Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service has pointed out, it is a myth that federal workers are impervious to getting fired. In fiscal 2009, 11,275 federal employees were terminated for poor performance or misconduct—and that does not include others, perhaps even more numerous, who left public service after being counseled that their performance was unacceptable.

Then there is another abstract belief, that private sector organizations always operate more efficiently and inexpensively than governmental ones. Abstract, but not logical, given that the one expense that is a certain difference between for-profit companies and other organizations is, well, profit. According to one independent study, the costs of private aviation security contracts were nine to seventeen percent higher than the costs to TSA of doing the same job. (Mica contends that this difference is “concocted.”)

Setting aside the misconceptions and mistaken beliefs, there certainly is a strong, valid basis—grounded in several centuries of economic history—for believing in the superiority of free enterprise. Competition works. As the head of Orlando Sanford International said in justifying his airport's recent shift to private screeners, “This country was built on competition, on private investment.” In a free market, in which consumers can vote with their pocketbooks and their feet, quality is rewarded and the lack of it is punished and dies.

But aviation security is one of many functions performed by government in which the requisite conditions of a market and competition do not exist. If the consumers in this instance are air travelers, they do not have a good mechanism for exercising choice. They go to the airport, and they put up with whatever screening organization, public or private, operates the security checkpoints there. And even if they did have a choice, there is not a product whose quality can be registered in consumers' choices. The product in this instance is security. The customers have little or no basis, except through random inexpert observation, for knowing how good is the product that is being delivered. It is hard enough for anyone to know that, given the nature of terrorist attacks as mathematically rare events and the inability to learn how many attacks are being deterred by the security procedures in place. Moreover, most air travelers, if they were given a choice, would opt—as a matter of their own comfort and convenience—for easier and quicker screening rather than longer and harder methods. And that preference does not translate into better security.