In the wake of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the federal government is proposing to take over passenger screening at airports. Unfortunately, changing the uniforms of the people who watch the X-ray machines will not make our airports safer. In fact, such efforts focus on the wrong target. More serious problems lie behind the scenes. In 1999, federal agents were able to sneak through security doors 46 times at four major airports and walk around on the tarmac, or board planes unchallenged. According to one Federal Aviation Administration official, Boston and Newark airports "leak like a sieve."
The most fundamental problem with airport security is fragmentation. It is the joint responsibility of the FAA, airport operators and airlines. Everybody is responsible for security -- which means nobody is really in charge. We need a single point of responsibility at each airport, held accountable for every aspect of security. That responsible and accountable party should be the airport owner/operator.
We already can see how much better this model works, because it's done this way in Europe. London's airports, especially Heathrow, have long taken seriously the threat of terrorism. Airport owner BAA trains and employs the passenger screeners itself. Every single bag is X-rayed (which has never been done for domestic flights in this country), and there is positive matching of bags with passengers.
Some of these European airports contract with private firms for some security functions, including passenger screening. But they insist on background checks, provide meaningful training and pay decent wages. Turnover there is but a small fraction of what it is for U.S. passenger screeners.
Creating a huge new workforce of federal civil servants for passenger screening would be a big mistake. It's very hard to fire federal employees who don't work out, or to reduce their numbers when technology automates some of their job functions. Technology holds great promise for improving and streamlining screening. The last thing we should do is put new obstacles in its way.
Instead of trying to micromanage security procedures from Washington, the FAA should set forth stringent outcome-based requirements and make each airport operator solely responsible for compliance. Airports that flunk security tests should face huge financial penalties and even the threat of shutdown.
If the FAA can yank the operating certificate of an airline that doesn't measure up on safety compliance, why not hold airports accountable in the same way?
Robert W. Poole, Jr. directs the Transportation Studies Program at the Reason Foundation. He advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on ways to improve airport security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.