Time for the TSA to change

(Flickr / Megan)

(Flickr / Megan)

Recent news reports have been highlighting what frequent travelers have realized for some time now: the security screening process at our nation’s airports is a disaster.

While airports are starting to warn people to arrive three hours before their flight, videos of security lines stretching throughout the airport have quickly gone viral.

It’s clear the Transportation Security Administration needs a total overhaul of the way it operates. Yet  Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this month adopted a typically bureaucratic posture and issued a statement calling on Congress to increase TSA’s funding for additional hiring and overtime.

If only it were so simple. Anyone who has ever seen groups of TSA agents standing around throughout the terminal knows that hiring more people won’t solve the problem.

As someone who flies at least twice a week, I have become well familiar with the inadequacies of the system. Just Monday, as I waited to board my flight, a group of six TSA agents descended on the gate and announced they would conduct random bag and identification checks. That meant two agents re-checked each person’s ID, two agents hand-searched carry-on bags (remember, these had already been through the X-ray machines), one agent “supervised,” and another walked up and down the boarding line, pointlessly reminding people to have their boarding passes out.

This additional check was completely unnecessary, since everyone had already been through security. It also had no real deterrence effect, since the vast majority of flights don’t have this check. Any terrorists who somehow happened to slip through security and were waiting in line to board my flight could simply, upon seeing the agents, catch a different flight. Even if the double screenings were a good idea, was sending six agents to the gate really the best use of resources while hundreds of passengers still waited in line for initial screening?

The TSA is extremely effective at one thing: creating the illusion of security. But with no real way to measure the effectiveness of new, stringent policies (shoes off, body scanners, no snowglobes), the agency often introduces more rules while not actually improving safety. That’s why TSA agents failed to detect weapons or explosives in 95 percent of the tests carried out by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Many estimate that simply locking the cockpit door has done more to improve flight safety than the $7 billion annually spent on the TSA.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a government failure without Democratic lawmakers finding some way to blame business. Several senators last week argued that if only airlines dropped their checked bag fees, the security lines would move more quickly. But airlines operate on tight profit margins; lower bag fees would mean higher ticket prices. The senators are saying, in effect, you should pay more for TSA’s inefficiency (even though you already do, in the form of a “September 11 Security Fee.”)

Dropping bag fees would also have a minimal effect on the length of the lines. Most business travelers never check bags, regardless of the fee, and passengers traveling for more than a few days will have a bag too big to carry on anyway. Even if all carry-on bags were eliminated, people would still have to take their shoes off, go through the body scanners, and get random pat-downs, which is the biggest bottleneck in the process.

The TSA has severe structural problems that go deeper than a lack of funding. Reports in April revealed the agency had paid IBM anywhere from $47,000 to $1.4 million to design an app that randomly pointed an arrow left or right, and a 2012 congressional report identified hundreds of millions of dollars in needless TSA spending on equipment sitting unused in a warehouse.

Low employee morale and engagement have also caused the TSA to burn through training funds at an alarming rate. “Over the past four years, employees have left DHS at a rate nearly twice as fast as in the federal government overall, and the trend is accelerating, according to a review of a federal database,” the Washington Postreported in 2014.

Twenty-two airports, including San Francisco International, have already turned to private security companies to conduct screenings under the Screening Partnership Program. More major cities such as New York are considering doing the same. A 2011 report by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure concluded that if all 35 major airports operated their security processes as efficiently as San Francisco’s private screeners, taxpayers would save $1 billion per year.

It’s time for a change. TSA is inefficient and ineffective. Absent major reforms  to the agency’s spending habits, labor practices and misguided policies, the lines will only grow longer.

Published on Opportunity Lives

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