Federal lawmakers appear to be in quite a rush these days to be
seen as "doing something" to combat terrorism. Does it matter to
them if that something turns out to be rather foolish?
I'm referring to legislation that would give us a government-run
passenger-screening process at airports nationwide. The Senate has
already passed it, and it's being debated in the House of
At first glance, this approach may seem appealing. It's clear
that security at many U.S. airports was woefully insufficient to
forestall a terrorist attack before Sept. 11, and that, even now,
more must be done to restore the public confidence in the safety of
domestic air travel. So why not resort to a federalized system that
would at least have the benefit of being uniform?
There are several reasons we shouldn't. For one, we need a
system that safeguards an entire airport. The Senate's plan to
"federalize" passenger screening operations would do nothing about
controlling access to the rest of the airport for the thousands of
caterers, cleaners, refuelers and others who lack mandatory
background checks or secure ID cards. Federal investigators have
been able to breach security and gain access to the tarmac on one
out of every three tries, yet these flaws are ignored by the
Second, America needs a system that is flexible. When lives
depend on security, it is essential to be able to discipline and/or
fire staffers who are incompetent or untrustworthy. But this is
very hard to do if the staffers in question are federal civil
servants. And since new technology may soon make it possible to let
machines handle much of the boring job of bag inspection,
flexibility will be needed to reassign or retire people whose jobs
are eliminated by that technology. But that too is difficult to do
in a federal civil-service bureaucracy.
Third, policy-makers need to take account of the fact that
passenger airports vary enormously in size and design. Some have a
central terminal, others have unit terminals. Some have hotels and
parking structures integrated into the terminal, others do not.
Some have extensive international service, others are exclusively
domestic. A "one size fits all" solution mandated from the top down
is likely to be a poor fit at many airports.
Fourth, policymakers should admit that nobody yet has "the
answer" for implementing more effective and affordable airport
security. All sorts of solutions are possible, from better X-ray
machines, to sophisticated profiling of high-risk people, to
biometric ID cards for employees and frequent fliers -- and no one
is sure yet how much they will cost or how effective they will
That's why a regime of tough federal outcome standards makes
better sense. It would permit a healthy degree of experimentation
by the nation's several hundred major airports to find out what
really does work best.
It turns out this kind of system already exists in European
countries and Israel. These countries have a 20-year head start in
dealing with serious terrorist threats. Many tried the top-down,
"federalized" approach. (In fact, 20 years ago, many European
airports were run by national governments.) But as part of an
effort to modernize airport management, governments in Western
Europe have created self-supporting airport corporations that work
Many of these airport corporations -- including those in
Belfast, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Rome and Vienna -- have
been privatized. Others, such as airports in Manchester and Paris,
are government-owned but operate on a for-profit basis. In every
case, when it comes to security, it is the airport's responsibility
to meet performance requirements set by the government -- but the
means for doing so are up to each airport operator.
Some of the airport companies, such as BAA, which runs London's
Heathrow and Gatwick, employ all passenger-screening staff
themselves. Most hire private security firms to do much of the
work, especially passenger screening. But because the airport
owners are held accountable for security by their national aviation
safety authorities, they insist on high levels of training and
reasonable pay and benefits for the people employed by the security
Yes, we do need to "do something" about airport security, but it would be a mistake to have the federal government take over passenger screening. Washington does have a role to play: It should become a much tougher aviation-security regulator. And it should learn from Europe and Israel, both of which have more experience with terrorism.
This essay by Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles, is adapted from a paper he wrote for The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed Nationally on the Scripps Howard Wire