Integrated Security Services, Inc., New York

Privatizing the TSA is not the Answer

19 May

TSA LineHundreds of passengers wait in the TSA security line at Nashville International Airport. James R. Martin /

By now, we have all experienced the good and bad, effective and not so effective process our government has put in place to secure our travel both inside and outside the homeland. I think we can all agree that whether it’s the TSA, military or police, we would all rather have some highly trained, very visible, and well organized enforcement professional at our airports, railways, subways, and other transportation hubs than not. There are approximately 55,000 TSA screeners assigned to the Department of Homeland Security with an annual budget of about $7.3 billion. This averages out to roughly $133k per TSA agent. With top pay around $61,000 for a supervisor and $25,500 for an agent, we can use some simple math to determine that approximately 2/3 of the TSA’s budget, roughly $5 billion dollars, has yet to produce an efficient system of pre-screening travelers.

If you’ve ever flown out of Tel Aviv or London’s Heathrow and been challenged by their security profilers and screeners, you know why Israel and the U.K. have the best track records dealing with terrorists. This is a direct result of stellar training, pride in service and, most importantly, directives, protocols, technology and leadership consistent with the one objective: prevent terrorism and terrorist acts from entering the transportation system. Their solution is all inclusive.

So the question remains, can the privatization of the TSA really correct everything we don’t like or perceive as broken? My response is a forceful and unequivocal, “No!” I have been in the security and safety business for 22 years and have a great deal to gain by jumping on board the “dump the TSA” bandwagon. With that said, if the 200 largest airports put their passenger screening needs out to a competitive bid in the private sector, the very same companies, under different names and corporate ownership, that failed our transportation system pre-9/11 would show up for their second bite at the apple. All one has to do is travel through any major airport today and observe the handiwork of the private security agencies controlling parking garages, arrival and departure access points and other fixed areas throughout the airport to get a glimpse of things to come. Further, where do you think the 55,00 screeners now out of work are going to wind up? If you think the TSA situation is bad now, then trust me when I say this is not a deck you want to shuffle.

By privatizing this critical security service, we are taking the public out of the accountability equation and diminishing our partnership with the government in ensuring our personal safety. Most will agree that the free enterprise system works well if you’re Starbucks serving coffee and assorted pastries, but the privately owned or publicly traded for-profit security companies that would benefit from these lowest-bid contracts would be directly accountable only to their shareholders and owners, not you and me. While government has a responsibility of service to and protection of its peoples, corporations have one primary goal: making money. Ask any organization that has worked with one of these large, volume-based security providers whether there was any added value in dealing with the very same issues the TSA must now contend with daily: customer service, problem solving, turnover, poor communication, and equipment failure.

Proponents of privatization suggest that winning bids, by law, would have to comply with all TSA regulations and meet International Civil Aviation Org (ICAO) core training standards, but these are the same standards that are broken and dysfunctional now. Our TSA is a good system with broken parts and monetizing this vital security service is not the solution. On a recent business trip to California, I personally experienced how not making the body scan x-ray system available to TSA Pre-Check flyers turned an automated procedure into a manual, labor intensive process. The TSA agent in this instance was wonderful, knowledgeable and deliberate in her instructions; however, the lack of strategically organized technology failed both the agent and the system.

I am not a big fan of charts and graphs; however, I do think that the TSA’s strategic advisers would benefit from an accurate workflow chart. Communal screening fails because no two flyers are alike. Terminal security screening, like any solution dealing in volume, must look and operate like an assembly line with multiple checkpoints in place before you enter the air terminal. Check points should begin at curbside and provide flyers with accurate instruction, identify potential issues, and check boarding passes. Each subsequent checkpoint functions to elevate access and reduce actual screening time.

Now that there is a pre-check portal to expedite flyers who have been cleared by Customs, perhaps other specialized portals can be created for the elderly, people with special needs & disabilities, and families with young travelers under 12 among others. We can get rid of the antiquated, walk-through magnetometers and replace them with more efficient body scan technology. We can introduce canine explosive detection for people who are challenged by x-ray equipment or have difficulty walking on their own. And where’s the outreach? If we want more flyers to participate in Pre-check, why hasn’t the TSA/Homeland Security and Customs brought the process to the flyers? Considering how much pre-boarding time we now spend in airports, there should be agents and kiosks specifically setup to sign up more travelers.

A little common sense is really all it takes to streamline and improve the TSA. The only individuals lobbying the government and the press for privatization are measuring your safety and mine in dollars and cents. We cannot allow profit margins to become the new security mandate and dictate the safety of all Americans.