- The Washington Times - Monday, November 12, 2001

Federalizing airport security operations would be a serious mistake. Such a government takeover would demonstrate congressional resolve to take swift action to fix a system badly in need of repair. But as reassuring as this fast fix might seem in the short run, it would be anything but fast in providing a solution to the problem, which is that we have virtually no effective screening of passengers and luggage at our nation's airports. The federalization of airport security would be slow, the government's replacement of unskilled personnel controversial and cumbersome, and its impact on improving security largely ineffective.

Federalization by creating a vast federal police force to inspect passengers and luggage will confront us with a potent political issue: What do you do with the 30,000 people now pretending to do the job? Most of them are low skilled, low paid and too poorly motivated to accomplish the challenging task that is, to minimize the opportunity for terrorist hijackers to turn commercial airliners into death traps for passengers in the sky and flying missiles for people on the ground. Most lack the education and skills to be upgraded, but this reality would be disregarded as callous. The impact on their families would take precedence over more mundane issues, like the skill and vigilance required of people who have to match wits for eight hours a day with dedicated and determined terrorists well disguised as normal people of good will.

Government's answer for tackling such sensitive issues is simple: take the safest, least controversial, politically correct course today and hope for the best tomorrow. Once the existing work force is federalized and they receive lifetime employment at substantially higher salaries and superior benefits, the only challenge left will be how to squeeze round pegs into square holes. Well, why not just make the holes larger?

The egalitarian principle that, with the right training, everyone is capable of doing every job equally well, is firmly entrenched in government. If they are unqualified now they may still be qualifiable or at least potentially qualifiable. These are not new terms for government. These are euphemisms that substitute good intentions but mean nothing when terrorists' intentions are life-and-death matters.

Where does that leave us? With the need to figure out what went wrong with the existing system and what other countries have done to make their airport security programs work. Many European countries, for instance, have discarded failed nationalized security systems and substituted government partnerships with the private sector. What we have now in the United States is a security screening system run by the airlines without any meaningful government oversight.

For a new airport security system to be effective, it must rely on the skill and vigilance of the airport security staff and their supervisors, who must maintain a constant vigil over millions of passengers and thousands of ground crew and support staff who service the planes and airport grounds. We can recruit airport security personnel who will meet strict standards with better pay and equip them with better training.

But past experience suggests that the Senate's approach a national federal police force for airport security is overkill. We tried that at federal facilities nationwide 30 years ago and found it was not effective. Manning fixed posts with overqualified police resulted in lowered performance. After a decade of problems, we abandoned that program and contracted out the function with disastrous results, not unlike what we have at the airports today.

A system that works effectively can best be accomplished quickly and at the lowest cost through the competitive system that works throughout the private sector. All we need is the right set of incentives that puts quality before cost. Financial rewards for contractors, including bonuses, must be based on meeting rigorous standards for security, with suitable financial penalties for failing to meet those standards. This would include swift termination where the failure is frequent or serious something wholly incompatible with government procurement or ineffective government employees.

Our government-regulated, privately managed airplane maintenance system has given us the safest planes in the sky. If the money and determination are there, we can also buy the best quality air transportation security system. Government's most effective contribution is to do that which it does best set the standards and provide effective oversight to assure the flying public that we have an efficient security system in place.

Gerald Turetsky, a former prosecutor and senior government administrator, is currently working on a book: "Battling the Bureaucracy From Within."

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