- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

Although airlines, airline unions, airports and Congress are almost never in agreement about anything, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all have spoken with one voice when it comes to the issue of airport passenger and baggage screening. The message: It is time to take this task away from the airlines and hand it over to the government.
Airlines, it is agreed by everyone, do a poor job as was made tragically clear last month.
Ironically, in this rush to federalize airport security, one small but important detail is being overlooked: As far as passenger screening is concerned, the system worked the way it was supposed to. None of the weapons believed to have been used by the hijackers was illegal under Federal Aviation Administration regulations in place at the time.
Give credit to the FAA and the airlines for making sure that this point receives scant attention. Each has its own reasons for not wanting anyone to examine things too closely. FAA, which regularly is criticized for its inability to deploy modern air traffic control technology, has no desire to be blamed for the worst attack on American soil in the history of the nation.
Airlines also have a reason: They always have resented the fact that, unlike their counterparts in many other nations, they are responsible for providing passenger and baggage screening, which is subcontracted to outside security firms. Airlines collectively spend about $1 billion per year on this and although that sounds like a lot of money, it's actually less than 1 percent of annual operating expenses for the industry. But in a business that rarely manages a 3 percent profit margin in the good years, every little bit helps.
However, even if we acknowledge these ulterior motives, there still is a very good reason to transfer this responsibility to the government: As was made clear again last month, it is a component of national security.
For at least the past 30 years, air transport has been a particular target of state-sponsored terrorism. Airlines have neither the financial resources nor the legal firepower to effectively combat it. Privacy laws, civil liberties organizations and even foreign governments can place obstacles in their paths that no private entity can overcome. Even something as obviously necessary as passenger profiling becomes, in the eyes of the domestic civil rights lobby, an egregious intrusion on personal privacy.
But it is a mistake to believe that simply federalizing airport security automatically will make it any more efficient, or even safer for passengers. Unless careful thought is given to achieving the desired outcome all it will do is to create another powerful federal agency that will be insulated and largely unaccountable to the American people for any future failures, as indeed, are all government agencies, at just about every level.
After all, it was the breakdown of the federal intelligence, security and immigration agencies that permitted these terrorists to obtain visas from U.S. consulates, to enter the U.S., to violate the terms of their visas, to establish themselves in communities, and to train at U.S. flight schools. Intelligence agencies ignored or downplayed signs that something big was coming and failed utterly to comprehend and evaluate the capabilities of a determined terrorist organization.
In the race to find an answer that will make everyone feel safer there appears to have been a willing suspension of disbelief about the facts. The very people who will use Federal Express or United Parcel Service to send a routine business communication rather than entrust it to the hands of the U.S. Postal Service suddenly believe that another well-paid federal work force is the solution to our security nightmare.
OK, here are a few questions to consider: Will federal screeners have civil service protection that makes it impossible to fire the incompetent ones, so they are merely shuffled around the system or promoted? Will they be permitted to unionize and negotiate working rules and conditions so all the positions but one close from 12:00 to 1:00 pm for lunch, as occurs at the Post Office?
Will the security staff be required to stay at their scanners when bad weather delay departures and arrivals past quitting time? What happens on federal "snow days?" And after we federalize it, how do we keep Congress from continually meddling and holding security funding hostage to the latest pet project on the Hill? Will every airport in West Virginia be equipped with the hottest scanner technology and a work force of hundreds, while other, larger airports with less powerful political patrons go begging?
Here is one more issue that no one wants to consider but that must be addressed: liability. Courts consistently have ruled that individual American citizens do not have legal recourse for the failings of the police to keep them safe and secure. So who pays when screeners fail?
Fortunately, there is another way: let the federal government take over responsibility for security and pay for it with a(nother) ticket tax or out of the general fund, but have the actual work done by private sector firms, as is the practice in many other countries. The government needs to maintain close oversight and the authority to deal with incompetent screeners. It can do that through a contracting relationship but it never will be able to police itself.

Perry Flint is executive editor of Air Transport World Magazine.

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