Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column

by Cliff Slater

December 11, 2001

Free market can help airports

The problem is not in the private security companies, but in a government-administered contract that goes to the lowest bidder.

When the news first came on September 11th that hijackers had taken over airplanes using only box cutters, I immediately thought of all the times at airports when I have tripped the buzzer walking through the metal detector. It has been usually because of either a metal belt buckle and/or the steel shanks in my shoes. The security people have then waved their wands over me noting in the process that I have a metal buckle and metal in my shoes and pass me on.

It had occurred to me that if I were to stitch or glue a box cutter blade behind the belt buckle or slide it into my shoe, it would invariably be undetected. The blade’s separate plastic handle would certainly not trigger any alarms.

So, when I recently flew for the first time since the attack, I expected to be asked to:

  • Unbuckle my belt so they could wave their wand behind it.
  • Take off my shoes so they could be passed through the carry-on baggage scanner.

I regret to tell you that it was business as usual—coming and going.

Now we are told that the solution for poor airport security is for the federal government to take it over and federalize the employees. Will everyone feel safer having airport security handled by the same bureaucrats that run the U.S. Post Office?

We hear complaints that airport security companies only hire minimum wage workers. What does anyone expect when the contract calls for the lowest bid but has few requirements other than the provision of warm bodies at certain times?

Nor do government-run airports provide incentives for the private security companies to improve security at airport gates or, for that matter, even define what constitutes an efficient airport security operation. In other words, what percentage of illegal items are security gate operators allowed to miss before they are terminated? Security quality is not defined, instead the government merely lets out contracts to the lowest bidder. Thus, it is not the private company that is at fault, it is the government-administered contract.

The answer is not to federalize airport security but instead to privatize the airports themselves—the people that administer security. Airport security has been lax precisely because the government has been in charge.

As Reason Foundation's Robert Poole points out, security is better where airports have been privatized.(1) The world’s largest airports, such as London’s Heathrow, Rome’s Fiumicino, and Germany's Frankfurt, are all privately owned and operated. As one would expect, security is excellent and security staff turnover is low. For example, at Heathrow the security staff even performs manual searches on a percentage of the checked baggage.

A privately-owned airport company can pay:

  • The security staff a bonus for any smuggling violation they detect and a fine for every one they do not.
  • Others an incentive for being able to smuggle illegal weapons past security.

Such competition between the “smugglers” and security people can lead each of them to be constantly more innovative about how to both breach security and prevent it.

The world of the free market works on incentives and competition. When they are introduced into our airport systems I know I may have to go barefoot while my shoes go through the scanner but I’ll feel good about that.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater


1) Poole, Robert Jr. and Viggo Butler. Fixing Airport Security: 21st Century Strategies for 21st Century Threats. Reason Public Policy Institute. September 21, 2001.