Note: I had originally submitted this as an OpEd to the Washington Post last week (to the great support of many – Thank you!) Alas, the Washington Post chose not to run it, so I thought I’d share it here (with a brief update about the TSA Director of Security), especially after reading Gary Leff’s TSA piece, which, I think gears toward a similar end result.
It is Time for the TSA to Step Aside
The summer travel season is fast approaching. This is a time when many facets of the US economy are relying on travelers and vacationers. While airlines are most pronounced, this travel season extends far beyond them, to the hotels, bed & breakfasts, and rentals, to the seasonal shops that are only open in the summer, to tour operators, and even lifeguards. In other words, many jobs are on the line, many businesses are on the line here.
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA), which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), plays a meaningful role in today’s transportation security. Unfortunately that meaningful role is most pronounced at airports, where lines and trending longer, and travelers are unhappy about it. The TSA, regardless of efficacy, is limited in hiring and operations, to what Congress permits it. In short, nothing happens quickly.
There have been a variety of options put out to try to alleviate the growing airport security lines, that inevitably impact the summer travel season. There have forward looking thoughts, such as the Port Authority of New York / New Jersey’s threat to TSA to replace them. Airlines have even been willing to put money up, such as American Airlines’ announcement that they will hire a company to manage checkpoint lines, so “TSA can focus on screening passengers.” There have also been non-productive options, such as those offered by two US Senators, requesting that airlines wave baggage fees. Of course the challenge to the latter proposal, is that TSA still must screen all baggage, its just a question of whether it is in front of passengers or not, I don’t believe it reduces the workload. In fact, just yesterday, TSA removed their Head of Security, Kelly Hoggan.
A Better Way
TSA has done an admirable job, given what it has been faced with, in the years following September 11, 2001. The agency and its screeners have continued to persevere with other threats, but the fact is, it is time to pass the torch. Before 9/11, private security was more than sufficient. Under the current rules–sans No Fly Lists–passengers can take through security pocket knives who’s blade is less than 2.36,” (Update: I misread this, rather, The agency had proposed to lift the ban on pocket knives but has since backed away, the change was not implemented). Private security can no doubt enforce such a rule. In fact, Private security can no doubt enforce many–if not all–of the rules put in place since September 11, 2001.
I propose, that TSA should transition from providing checkpoint security, to overseeing checkpoint security. The agency should continue to provide guidance on what can and cannot be taken through airport security checkpoints–and on airplanes. The agency should also continue to have influence on the x-ray, millimeter wave, and other scanning and screening technology, to ensure the costs are competitive, and the result is reliable. However, now is the time for TSA to step back from providing the “boots on the ground” checkpoint screening. As a compromise, the agency could–and should–have limited supervisor-level staff onsite at airports to provide the final judgement on questionable items.
It is important to remember the role that TSA has played over the past 15 years. It is also important to acknowledge that we must regularly consider the structures and processes we have in place, and take action when necessary. Action is necessary at this juncture. This is not a result of the positive work that TSA has done over the last 15 years, and where airport security needs to go over the next few years. To facilitate this, TSA should step back, and be elevated to an oversight role, rather than a “boots on the ground” role. This will allow TSA to focus on the true threats, and convey information downward as appropriate.
As a result of TSA stepping back, airports will be able to contract with private security, and if there is a problem from a long wait, or other issue, airports will be empowered to take action themselves, rather than pleading to a nation-wide service provider, as the TSA has become. This will provide a way for the TSA, airports, and airlines, to come together, to ensure that the upcoming Summer Travel Season is successful for all.