Privatizing Air Travel Security Won't Change What People Hate About Screening

Last Updated Nov 29, 2010 10:54 AM EST

Given the recent fuss over body scanners, pat-downs and other moves by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), some folks now argue that we should once again privatize air travel security screening in the U.S. Such a move, however, won't address what most people think needs to be fixed. It's a red herring that stands to have very little impact on what travelers experience.

The most prominent calls are coming from Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the heir-apparent to the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But Rep. Mica's calls are likely to have little to no impact on security itself. He is not calling for complete privatization but simply for private companies to take over screening duties at airports. This is nothing new.

The TSA already allows airports to contract with private companies, but that doesn't exempt them from following federally-established rules for security screening. The processes and procedures are exactly the same regardless of who is performing the work. So who cares if it's a private company or federal employees?

Rep. Mica may very well care because he's received many contributions from companies that provide these services, but he also seems to follow the logic that private companies are more efficient than government. If that's true, however, then why wouldn't every airport go this route already? If it meant shorter lines and more pleasant employees with the same or less cost, then no airport would stick with TSA, but that's not what's happening.

So far, only 16 airports large and small have opted for private screening. San Francisco, for example, had its security awarded to a private company more than four years ago. There's no reason that an airport can't apply to go private today. While there has been interest from several airports lately (two of which are either in or near Rep. Mica's district outside Orlando), there isn't exactly a stampede.

It seems to me that this is a direct reaction to the furor over recent changes to the screening process. Travelers have been angrily protesting the body scanner machines because of the minute amount of radiation they produce while others have been up in arms over the new TSA pat-down for secondary screening that some compare to sexual harassment.

Politicians, sensing the furor, are jumping at the opportunity to look like they're onboard in the fight against the establishment, but Rep. Mica's proposal would change absolutely nothing on that front. TSA policy would remain in place. It would just change who acts as the implementer at the airport level.

In the end, this will not cause the body scanners to disappear or the pat-downs to get any less invasive. It could potentially enrich Rep. Mica's campaign contributors and help his political standing in the public eye, but that just shouldn't matter. We need to revisit the security policies and procedures themselves in order to really see anything change.

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