October 15, 2001

October 15, 2001 | WebMemo on Regulation

Let's Learn from Experience on Airport Security

Before we rush into creating a new 28,000-person federal passenger-screening bureaucracy, it might make sense to start with a clean sheet of paper and ask what kind of system would best do the job of keeping airports safe. The overwhelming evidence from other countries, especially Israel, shows that federalizing airport security is not the answer.

First, we need a system that safeguards the entire airport, with one party held responsible for all aspects of its security. The Senate's current plan to "federalize" passenger screening would do nothing about access control at the rest of the airport-the thousands of caterers, cleaners, refuelers, and many others who lack 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 Senate proposal. The first thing we need to do is to end the current fragmentation, and make a single entity responsible for all security at each airport.

Second, we need a system that is flexible and forward-looking. When people's lives depend on security, it's essential to be able to discipline and/or fire those staffers who are either incompetent or untrustworthy. That's very hard to do if those people are federal civil servants. And since new technology may soon make it possible to let machines do more of the boring job of bag inspection, we also need the flexibility to reassign or retire people whose jobs are eliminated by new technology. Again, that's awfully hard to do in a federal civil-service bureaucracy.

Third, we 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, while others are exclusively domestic. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all solution mandated from the top down is likely to be a poor fit at many airports. A much wiser approach would be for the federal government to set tough performance standards but let each airport tailor its security systems to its unique circumstances.

And fourth, with some humility, we should acknowledge that nobody yet has "the answer" for more-effective but also affordable airport security. All sorts of combinations of better X-ray machines, sophisticated profiling to spot high-risk people, biometric ID cards for employees and frequent fliers, etc. are possible-at widely varying cost and unknown degrees of effectiveness. A regime of tough federal outcome standards could permit a healthy degree of experimentation by our several hundred major airports, to find out what really does work best.

It turns out that this kind of system already exists, in Europe and Israel. These countries have a 20-year head-start in dealing with serious terrorist threats. Many tried the top-down, "federalized" approach; after all, 20 years ago many European airports were run by national governments. But as part of modernizing airport management, governments in Western Europe have created self-supporting airport corporations for most major airports. Many of those airport corporations have subsequently been privatized-including Belfast, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Rome, and Vienna. Others, such as Manchester and Paris, remain government-owned but still operate on a business-like, for-profit basis. In every case, national governments in those countries retain regulatory oversight over the airport companies. When it comes to security, it is the airport's responsibility to meet those performance requirements-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. But most-including such high-risk airports as Amsterdam, Belfast, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Paris-hire private security firms to do major portions 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 firms.

Israel, too, used to provide all airport security via national government employees. But about five years ago the Israelis opted for the European public-private partnership model, as well. A government agency known as Sherut Habitachon Haklali (Shabak) sets the standards, based on its assessment of risks, issues directives to the airports, and evaluates their performance. The Ben Gurion Airport Authority in Tel Aviv is charged with full responsibility for meeting the security requirements. It hires a private firm, Amishav, to do pre-boarding screening and several other security functions. Another private company, ICTS, provides passenger-profiling software to the Israeli government.

Ironically, the three biggest security firms in Europe-Securitas, Securicor, and ICTS-are the parent companies of the U.S. firms that provide 60% of all passenger screening here. Yet while turnover of European passenger screeners runs between 10% and 50% per year, it's typically between 100% and 400% in this country. Why? Because you get what you pay for. Since our FAA has set no standards for training, does very little unannounced inspection, and issues only token fines, it's no wonder we've ended up with poorly trained, minimum-wage screeners.

Nowhere in Europe do individual airlines hire security firms to do passenger screening, as is common practice in the United States. Under our flawed system, since the FAA imposes no standards for screeners, and since the airline business is very cost-competitive, it's no wonder that during a decade with virtually no hijacking, the airlines would seek to carry out this function at the lowest cost. Hence, the phenomenon of security firms having to bid low prices in order to get the contract and then being able to afford only minimally trained and low-paid staff.

Today, with the tragic realization that hijacking is a far more serious and deadly threat than anyone had realized, it's clear to everyone that we need higher standards not just for passenger screening but for all aspects of airport security. Minimum-wage workers with minimal training are clearly not acceptable. And individual airlines never should have been expected to maintain safe and secure airport premises; that's the job of the airport operator. And as the experience of Europe and Israel attests, airports are fully capable of providing high-quality security, under a regime of tough national standards backed up by serious enforcement.

We don't need a large new federal civil-service work force for airport security. Rather, we need much tougher federal requirements imposed on airports, holding them fully responsible for all aspects of security. Just as the FAA can impose serious fines on airlines that violate safety rules, and even pull their license to operate, so should it impose serious fines and the threat of shut-down on airports that don't take their responsibilities seriously.

Earlier this year Boston's Logan Airport (from which two of the hijacked planes originated), threatened to impose fines on airlines that failed to speed passengers through the security-screening process. This is the same airport whose (now-fired) security director was the former governor's driver. That's what happens when airports are run by politicized bodies, rather than world-class aviation professionals. But if Logan Airport had faced a serious possibility of being shut down for security lapses, would such practices have occurred?

It may be objected that some U.S. airports don't have the management expertise to take on the full responsibility for airport security. If that is the case, it's a shocking confession. To the extent that it may apply at specific airports, there's an obvious remedy: hire one of the global airport-management companies that now operates such airports as Albany, Burbank, and Indianapolis.

Finally, how can airports pay for the higher level of security that these times require? Advocates of federalization argue for a uniform, nationwide tax of several dollars on all airline tickets. But that approach, like the existing ticket tax, requires all the money to flow to Washington, where it becomes enmeshed in the federal budget process and must be allocated by congressional committees, with all the usual political horse-trading and pork-barreling. A better model is the passenger facility fee (PFC), under which individual airports can opt to impose a charge of up to $4.50 per passenger, to be used for specific projects at that airport, and only that airport. The money stays at the airport, under local control (subject to FAA oversight, to be sure it is spent only on eligible airport improvement projects). This decentralized approach would permit each airport to charge only what is needed to upgrade its own security. Airports needing major redesign of terminals, for example, would need to charge more than those whose facilities need little or no modification.

In short, the knee-jerk response of having the federal government take over passenger screening is the wrong response to a real problem. The federal government does have a role to play: becoming a much tougher aviation-security regulator. And yes, airlines should be taken out of the loop, so that the current fragmented system can be turned into a single, unified security system at each airport. That system has been proven under fire in countries that have far more experience with terrorism than the United States: Israel and Europe. We should learn from their example.

Robert Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, is Director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles.

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