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December 2001

Volume 19, Number 12

Federalize Airline Security?

William L. Anderson

In the weeks following the terror attacks, calls have come from politicians and journalists to "federalize" airport security by making workers who screen passengers and baggage government employees. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and others in Congress have declared that "passengers won't feel safe again" unless the government takes this step.

A number of columnists and editorial writers have echoed the same line. The Chattanooga Times, for example, writes that since private airlines seek profit, they cut costs anywhere they can, which means cutting back on security. Other journalists, including the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, declare that only a huge increase in the powers of government can restore peace and order to our society. Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former top aide and now a media pundit, writes that we must give up our liberties if we are to have security.

Such declarations are statist nonsense. Contra the horde of Washington_based journalists who seek even more influence and prestige by making the national government even more central to our lives, the horrible events of September 11 were not a massive failure of private enterprise, but rather the largest single episode of government failure in our nation's history.

While it is impossible to document all of the government's failures that led to the murder of thousands of Americans, we can at least concentrate upon the proposal to make all airport security workers into GS_somethings. The entire Federal Aviation Administration's security package is already flawed, and "federalizing" the airport work force will only make things worse.

The current argument for this government takeover goes as such: Because the airlines must pay the expenses for screening passengers and baggage, they have tried to do it as cheaply as possible, cutting costs and cutting corners that have made the system a leaky sieve. These "profit-maximizing" entities hire outside firms that hire poorly paid temporary workers who obviously are not up to the job, the critics charge.

If the FAA takes over this vital portion of airline travel, the critics say, then employees will receive better pay and benefits, which will attract intelligent, conscientious workers who will stay on the job. Thus, the flying public will be made safe, once and for all.

Journalists' and politicians' opinions to the contrary, airlines actually have a vested interest in passenger safety. Many airlines in the wake of the September 11 events now face bankruptcy, and even the best carriers are laying off thousands of workers in an effort to stay afloat. To say that airlines are indifferent to the security needs of passengers and their crews is an obscene lie.

The current "perimeter" screening system is not of the airlines' making, but rather is a command-and-control regulatory scheme of the FAA, a "one size fits all" boondoggle. If command-and-control regulation fails elsewhere (especially in the area of environmental protection), why would one think it would be successful in airports? The only way a perimeter defense can have 100 percent results is if the government forbids flying altogether.

Since the current system is designed and overseen by the FAA, it is silly to say that just changing the employment status of security workers will make airports safer. FAA jobs would be filled with the same workers as before. Because the FAA is subject to strict government affirmative action laws and regulations, emphasis would be put on hiring minorities, and the minorities who are "most qualified" would be the people already on the job. Therefore, if the current set of securities workers is incompetent, as the critics charge, then the FAA employees will be just as inept. (My guess is that those now working airport security are no better or no worse at what they do than the rest of us would be.)

This new wave of federal employees would be in a situation where public employee unions can easily organize them, holding the rest of us hostage. Unlike the pilot and flight attendant unions, which have a vested interest in the safety of their members, the one tool that these newly organized groups of security workers would have in their arsenal would be to compromise flight safety. Pilots and flight attendants, while being unhappy with their employers during labor disputes, are not going to purposefully place their lives in jeopardy in order to gain concessions from their employers. If they go on strike, for example, then their planes simply don't leave the ground.

With security workers, however, the dynamics are much different. If unionized passenger and baggage screeners decide to either go on strike or stage some other work-related protest, the only way they can do so is to engage in acts that will compromise the safety of the flying public. This means either going on strike, in which case the FAA would either have to shut down flying altogether or hire inexperienced replacements, or stage work slowdowns or demonstrations that will increase the chances that hijackers can smuggle weapons aboard planes.

One reason I believe that congressional Democrats want to federalize the airport workforce is precisely to increase their chances to become unionized. Unions are a major part of the Democratic Party, and giving them almost complete reign of airports would be a dream come true for organized labor. (Many current airport security employees are "temporary" workers who are not eligible for union membership.)

Furthermore, whether the airport workers are employed by Joe's Security Services or by the FAA does not change the fact that the current perimeter system is horribly flawed. While the uniforms on the security workers would be different, the fact that determined and even not-so-clever terrorists can find ways to smuggle weapons on board airplanes makes the whole discussion of employment almost pointless.

Since the procedures currently used in screening passengers and baggage are ones that the FAA already has mandated, it is difficult to know what actually would change from the way things are being done now. The only thing that possibly can change is that the FAA becomes even stricter, which is now the case, as all passengers, including pilots, are seen as potential terrorists. (For example, the FAA recently forbade a pilot to carry fingernail clippers onto his own plane, something that eloquently demonstrates the absurdity of the agency's security practices.)

If Congress truly wishes to make airline travel safer than it is now, the first thing it should do is to abolish the demonstrably flawed FAA, not give it even more powers. Airlines should be permitted to employ whatever security measures they see fit, and flight crews should be able to carry items they can use for personal protection.

Airlines should be able to determine who can be passengers on their planes and who should not. Contrary to what many "civil libertarians" might think, the right of property owners to choose who sets foot upon their property is not a violation of the Bill of Rights. Instead, the act of forcing airlines and other private property owners to accept whoever shows up at their doorstep desecrates those rights we supposedly have enshrined in our nation's Constitution.

I do not claim to be a security expert. However, as an economist, I do understand the role of incentives. Like so many other things government does, the FAA requires safety programs that create perverse incentives, all of which carry a cost. Unfortunately for thousands of Americans and hundreds of foreign nationals who happened to be at the World Trade Center on that fateful day, the bills for the FAA's ineptitude came all at once.


William L. Anderson teaches economics at Frostburg State University (


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