Market Solutions for the TSA

Jordan Pic, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Fellow American travelers can attest that navigating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) often disrupts one’s plans. These scenarios were recently highlighted in the news when long security lines caused flight delays across the nation. Later, a CNN commentator shared her intrusive pat down by TSA despite her enrollment in the TSA precheck program which is designed to increase efficiency by bypassing lines. Meanwhile, the integrity of TSA security protocols are being questioned as stories of corruption and lack of due diligence come to light.

In the wake of a new administration, President Trump should make aviation security an urgent priority. This starts with reforming the TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In his campaign and early days of presidency, President Trump emphasized stemming illegal immigration and tightening border security. Less has been said about President Trump and new DHS Secretary General John F. Kelly’s priorities for the TSA. Efficiency, customer service, and safety are what Americans expect from the TSA. Meeting their needs is a challenge the administration should seek to accomplish in the next four years.

Since the departure of TSA Chief Peter Neffenger, Trump has yet to name a replacement. Neffenger handled issues of congestion at airports last year by successfully appealing to Congress to reallocate funds and create the TSA Academy. The incoming chief will inherit an organization that is currently reevaluating its policies and procedures and will need to consider long-term reform solutions.

In Canada and the European Union, airports are responsible for either providing their own security or contracting with a private security firm. It is time for the United States to consider its own business lens for the TSA. With a business-savvy president and a general with extensive security experience heading the DHS, the two should encourage market solutions for the TSA such as privatizing its security contracts. Privatization of the TSA has been a popular proposal with lawmakers and policy experts for many years, including Congressman Darrell Issa who said the following:

Expanding the private screening program, if not privatizing the airport security business entirely, would go a long way to helping improve the experience fliers face at our nation’s airports. The TSA, of course, could still exist to set standards and oversee quality control for the companies administering security,…

One of Neffenger’s strategies was to transition part-time employees to full-time. Frustrated with restrictive and unfair government salaries and benefits, many TSA employees have left their jobs in recent years. Creating more  full-time jobs for TSA screeners within the organization is a needed short-term policy that would streamline the increasing number of travelers. A long-term solution is to allow a private company to run the organization and hire employees. Before Neffenger took the post as chief of the TSA, it was revealed that 67 out of 70 security tests were failed by TSA screeners. A separate report prepared by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure states that an airport partnering with a private screener is 65% more efficient than it’s neighboring airport with TSA screeners. The report also highlights that over five years, the government would save $1 billion dollars if it replaced TSA with private screeners at 35 major airports.

To further the efficiency of travel times for customers, the new director should advocate to lessen the bureaucratic red tape that hinders airports from participating in the Screening Partnership Program. The airports participating in the SPP work with the current government approved list of security contractors. SPP airports report greater efficiency in terms of processings passengers. Unfortunately, it is a difficult process to participate in the SPP, making it a deterrent for most airports.

In other performance areas, private contractors have room for improvement to be more competitive. To ensure accountability in private security contractors, DHS should consider a program that is similar to the small business-oriented Better Buying Power program run by the DOD that Deputy Program Manager 1st Lt. Joshua Neace explained saved millions of taxpayer dollars on a recent acquisition:

“The first phase of our model was structured so that the first lot of kits was built by five of the lowest bidding contractors in order to ensure the vendors could produce to quality performance standards,” the lieutenant explained. “The next phase was structured so that one of the five qualified vendors would build the entire lot of kits, awarding to the lowest bidder.” Naturally, the  competition among suppliers produced a quality product for the government at the lowest price to the taxpayer. The savings from this strategy – millions.

The DOD’s BBP initiative is a free market model the DHS should consider in its security contractors  acquisitions, as well as its future technology research to improve security. While training for screening personnel is reevaluated, it is also crucial that any new technology the TSA installs works well.This would reflect the DOD’s structure that ensures the lowest bidders are producing quality performance.

Founded after 9/11, the TSA is a vital, young program. It is imperative that the TSA improve its public image and act on the criticism it has received for its inefficiency and mismanagement. It is necessary President Trump, General Kelly, and the new TSA leadership move forward with organizational reform for the sake of American safety and dollars.

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