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Held Hostage at Airports by the TSA

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This article first appeared on the Foundation for Economic Education site.

Have you missed a flight recently due to a long security line? I have. So have tens of thousands of others. It used to be that you could get to the airport an hour before your flight. That might still work. Or maybe not. Maybe security itself will take an hour or two. You never know.

We stand in line and watch in shock and awe. There are six security stations. Only one is open. The lines snake around the airport and even into the street. No one in charge seems to care.

You ask why the long lines. It’s a holiday. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) apparently forgot to put it on their calendar. So there aren’t enough employees. And they apparently lack the ability to call in more when necessary.

Right now, warnings are pouring out to be careful this summer. The lines could be one or two hours in waiting. Or maybe not, and then you will have time to shop and drink, to hunt for an outlet for your cellphone, or sleep in an uncomfortable chair.

But you dare not take the risk. You will miss your flight. No one will reimburse you. Your sick mother, your daughter’s wedding, a crucial business trip, they will all just have to wait.

The TSA runs the show, holding hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance. Do they care? Maybe the individual employees feel bad about it. But management is in charge. And even they don’t determine policies. It’s the Department of Homeland Security that does that, under the authority of the U.S. Congress. If you don’t like it, start a lobbying organization.

The trouble is that the TSA is not the private owner of anything. It has no stake in the profitability of the airlines. It gets funding either way. As for your convenience, forget it. One agent might be nice and fast, another might be mean and slow. It’s entirely up to the individual in question. There is no institutional reason to boost one temperament over another.

Irrationality in the System

What about the labor miscalculations? I’ve been at airports where dozens of agents stand around doing nothing. There is no line. Security takes minutes. In other airports, understaffing is obvious and egregious. There is nothing anyone can do. It’s an island of socialism in a sea of markets, and socialism doesn’t work.

Ask any restaurant owner about staffing issues. They know they need extra servers and cooks on Friday night. You don’t bring in that same load on Monday because it would be a waste of resources. It’s a major challenge to anticipate consumer demand before it happens, but that’s the life of private enterprise. Making money is hard.

The TSA faces a completely different incentive structure. It’s all about compliance and rules, even when the stupidity is obvious. TSA employees know that it is idiotic to confiscate hair gel, wooden toy guns and water bottles. Why am I taking my laptop out of my bag and leaving my iPad in? They know it makes no sense. It’s embarrassing. But there is nothing they can do.

As for security, The New York Times notes in passing that an “audit found that agents had failed to spot weapons and explosives in 95 percent of the undercover tests.”

The response to the audit was to slow down the screening process, and add dogs too. Now you face what is a very scary and tremendously annoying process of having some huge dog sniff you up and down. What if the dog makes a mistake? You will be detained. You can’t sue, of course.

A few weeks ago, a machine found explosive residue on my hands. I had been to the rifle range the day before, so maybe that is why. Or maybe not. Someone on my Facebook page asked whether I had candles in my bag. I did. Those can trigger these useless machines. Regardless, I lost 30 minutes of my life as the TSA dug through all my stuff, looking for a bomb. Sheesh.

Stealing Stuff

Let’s also talk about theft. Yes, thieves, employed by the TSA, with salaries paid for by the taxpayers. Your bags are no longer safe. Employees of the TSA routinely scavenge for good stuff, just like when you travel to far-flung places. In the past five years, more than 30,000 theft claims have been filed by passengers.

You know what bugs me most about this? Nothing about what is happening is surprising. You don’t have to be a prophet. You don’t have to read giant books. Just the slightest knowledge of reality will inform you that if you put a government bureaucracy is charge of something as important as airport security, that bureaucracy will screw it up.

This is not rocket science. Ask the average person: “Should we put a government bureaucracy in charge of making and delivering chicken sandwiches? Software? Shoes?” Every person you ask will know the right answer.

And yet, following 9/11, George Bush went exactly in the wrong direction. He announced that airport security would now be controlled by the government. And you know how many people objected? I vaguely recall that Ron Paul said this wouldn’t work, but that was about it. Everyone else screamed: Yes, that will teach the terrorists a thing or two! Next thing you know, travel was no longer fun.

Fifteen years later, we are all suffering. It’s not just the invasive screenings. If those are necessary for security, fine. What’s absolutely awful is the uncertainty about time. You could miss your flight or not. You never know. And they don’t care. That’s dehumanizing.

Should the TSA be privatized? Of course. Better yet, forget the process and just abolish it. Let the airports and airlines work it out.

What could be the objection? That airlines don’t care about security? That’s absurd. No institution has a stronger reason to strive for their customer’s safety than airlines. If any airline had a 95 percent failure rate in detecting guns and explosives, the public would be screaming. As it is, the TSA’s failures are known and expected, and there is very little outrage.

There we stand, in long lines. Being sniffed by dogs. Missing our flights. Demoralized.

Finally we get through the security lines and face an amazing world of airport shops, restaurants and bars. There the employees are desperate to please us. If the fries are cold or the drinks made wrong, we complain and get our way.

What’s the difference? It’s government vs. the market. One cares nothing about us. The other exists to serve us. One is brutal, the other humane.

Which should be in charge of security at airports?

Credit: http://www.newsweek.com/we-are-all-being-held-hostage-airports-tsa-458084