Security to the Lowest Bidder

Veda Shook, president of the International Flight Attendant union, at a House aviation subcommittee hearing last Thursday, debating the fate of the Transportation Security Administration:

We believe that any return to a bottom-line-driven system that puts security second to profits would be a reckless and unjustified regression from T.S.A.’s mission to protect our skies.

After September 11, 2001, I always wondered how long it would take before the US would tolerate farming out airport security to private contractors. After hearing about http://www.wewontfly.com, which has all the makings of an AstroTurf lobbying group, I imagine that with a coordinated public relations campaign, it will be soon, just over ten years after that monumental breach in airport security.

I’ll admit that the TSA isn’t the most well-run and customer friendly operation in the country. Yes, their agents have stolen some property. Yes, they miss some contraband. Yes, they have installed invasive and expensive body scanners. And yes, they might even grope people. Call me a little paranoid, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was part of a public relations smear campaign to put airport security into the grubby paws of private contractors.

But will the private sector do a better job? I doubt it. For one thing, it’s not like the agents at Argenbright were handing out smiles and candy at the security checkpoints when they were screening people at airports during my frequent flying days in the 1990s. Also, in these days of airline staff cut down to the bone and working for paltry wages, it’s not like you’re getting much love from the airline, and the last time I checked, that’s still a private sector industry. No, private contractors are just going to hire the cheapest staff[1] they can find, give their staff minutes of training, and secure contracts so they aren’t held accountable in a “competitive” industry."

Nationalizing airport security in 2001 was done as an emergency measure. It needed to be done to remove the incompetent contractors that allowed the coordinated hijackings. It needed to be done to restore a semblance of security to save American aviation. It needed to be done to ensure it was done with some centralized oversight. It’s possible that those concerns aren’t valid anymore, but I wonder how many of these security contractors were the same ones telling us to “Never Forget” about that horrible day, and likely capitalizing on newly minted security contracts. Now, it looks we are supposed to forget how airport security failed us when it was in the hands of the lowest bidder.


  1. Bridges, Tyler. 2001. “Company Pleaded Guilty to Previous Violations.” Miami Herald, Sep 13, 2001, 15.  ↩

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