Inconvenience as Opportunity: Meet the Crew Trying to Privatize Airport Security

The Transportation Security Administration currently employs about 42,000 officers, down by 5,000 since 2013. However, the number of air passengers has risen 15 percent in that time, from 643 million to 740 million, and that number is projected to crack 800 million in 2016.


It seems clear that there’s a natural connection between these statistics and the recent plethora of horror stories regarding massive security checkpoint lines. Many Americans are now beginning to view the TSA as a bloated symbol of government waste and any confidence in it has seemingly eroded. The organization seems to realize as much; in a recent interview, TSA administrator Peter V. Neffenger referred to it as an “organization in crisis.”

Now, with the TSA in economic disarray and pleading for congressional funding, many are calling for the privatization of airport security. But the intellectual framework for allowing private companies to run the organization has already been laid, as certain individuals have been promoting the policy for years.

Noam Chomsky once described what he considered to be the standard technique of privatization: “defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital." Writing about the fight against TSA unionization in 2011, Mark Ames and Yasha Levine cited Scott Walker’s battle against Wisconsin workers as a valuable insight into how airline fights would go down:

1) Manufacture a fake budget crisis in order to frighten the state’s residents; 2) PR the false-crisis hard enough until it breaks out of the right-wing/libertarian pipeline and into the mainstream media; 3) Blame the fake crisis on a fake villain—“greedy” state employee unions—thereby pitting the public against state workers. That way, when Republicans pass new laws destroying teachers and firefighters unions, they’ll come off as heroes defending the public from greedy unions, rather than as sleazy mercenaries carrying out their corporate sponsors’ dirty work.

To many, it seems that’s the blueprint currently at work. On May 26, CNN ran an op-ed California Representative Darrell Issa calling for the privatization of the TSA. Issa wrote that:

“Ultimately, allowing private companies to take over administration of our airports' security, under the TSA's guidelines, would unleash the markets' power of innovation to improve customer service and undo years of bureaucracy that has squandered billions of dollars dedicated to airport security and done much to make traveling more miserable.”

Issa’s op-ed was praised by Chris Edwards, author of a Cato report on TSA privatization. Edwards referred to Issa’s proposals as “excellent” and identified them as “Cato-style aviation reforms.”

Edwards is certainly correct. His report calls for abolition of the TSA and open competitive bidding from private firms for control of the organization. As for the TSA charge that such an arrangement would actually cost more money, Edwards cites a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure report which found that privatizing the TSA would save money.

The report was released while the chairman of that committee was John Mica, a Republican representative from Florida, who has long been a fierce advocate of transportation privatization. In 2011, Mica fought to privatize Amtrak’s rail service in the Northeast, which he referred to as a Soviet-style train system. The ranking Democrat on the committee at the time, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, insisted that Mica’s quest for privatization was predicated on the destruction of the transportation service. “While Congressman Mica refuses to focus on critical infrastructure issues,” said Brown, "he is bent on destroying Amtrak."

This year, Mica took aim at Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system. When Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority chairman Jack Evans asked for federal funding at a congressional hearing, Mica began shouting at Evans: "I am not going to support bailing out the District of Columbia. Virginia needs to step up to the plate, Maryland needs to step up to the plate, and D.C. with that huge surplus needs to step up to the plate!”

Evans explained that D.C. city government budget was separate from the Metro’s, but it didn’t seem to phase Mica’s disdain for the proposal. 

In June 2011, while Congress was considering the Department of Homeland Security’s FY 2012 Appropriations bill, Mica introduced a “Pro-Private Screener Amendment” that cut the TSA budget by $270 million with the savings going toward the Screening Partnership Program. SPP is a program that allows airports to opt out of using TSA personnel if they’re able to prove that they get the same results from private workers at a cheaper rate.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was another victory for pro-privatization forces, as it required the TSA to approve private applications, provided it didn’t raise associated costs. Less than six months after that legislation, Robert Poole, co-founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation, testified about the benefits of TSA privatization in Congress, citing the same Transportation & Infrastructure Committee report Chris Edwards did.

Poole was the author of his own report, in 2006, for the Heritage Foundation. “Four years of experience have taught that the U.S. government cannot do the job any better than the private sector,” it reads. “This should come as no surprise.”

Poole, and Reason, have actually claimed that Poole coined the term “privatization.” This is disputed, but no one doubts the fact that Poole’s thinking has had a major impact on policy, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. A former adviser to Margaret Thatcher explained how Poole’s writings from the 1970s supplied a blueprint for wresting control from the government:

“The intellectual case for ‘contracting out’ came from an American MIT-trained engineer turned policy wonk, Bob Poole, head of the Reason Foundation in Santa Barbara and author of a little book called Cutting Back City Hall. In this book he explained how all you needed to run a city was a CEO, a lawyer to review contracts and a secretary. Everything—literally everything—could be outsourced and he littered his book with examples and figures....[Thatcher adviser Michael Forsyth] translated Poole’s work into an English context and, led by the Westminster City Council, ‘contracting out’ spread like a contagious disease throughout the country.”

Poole’s connection to the U.S government is well-documented. His own bio identifies him as an adviser to Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush administrations. He’s advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, and Government Accountability Office. His 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes inspired California's landmark private tollway law, and for his efforts, he was appointed to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment by Gov. Pete Wilson.

As for the airline industry, Poole has advised the Federal Aviation Administration and is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel. He’s testified in Congress on the airlines numerous times, and in 1996, Canada implemented a version of the commercialized airline concept he has been pushing for years.

The idea that federal TSA jobs should be handed over to corporations has worked itself into the Republican Party’s actual platform.

In March 2015, Rep. Mica presented a bill to the House aviation subcommittee that would create a private corporation to control U.S. air travel. “The time to stop talking is now,” Mica declared. Poole was there, to advocate for the plan and supply further information to the subcommittee. The Washington Post points out that he also provided recommendations: “separate the air traffic control system, shift some user fees from the federal government to the new entity and make airlines and other stakeholders—including airports and passengers—the overseers of the system.”

Another lawmaker who spoke in support of the shift was Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster. Shuster became chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure when Mica’s reign ended in 2013. Shuster explained how TSA spending had led to little benefit and listened to the testimony of Douglas Parker, chief executive of American Airlines, who testified on behalf of the trade group Airlines for America. Parker cited many others that have separated regulatory and air traffic control functions, while privatizing the jobs of their controllers. “Transformation, not renovation, is required,” said Parker.

Less than a month later, Shuster admitted to having a romantic relationship with Shelley Rubino, vice president for global government affairs at Airlines for America. Shuster drafted a document, in 2014, stating that Rubino could not lobby him or his staff, but as Politico notes, “This does not prevent Rubino from lobbying the other 50 members of the committee, and their aides.”

In February of this year, Shuster proposed a bill called the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act, which would break up the FAA and potentially put air traffic control jobs under corporations. Shuster fast-tracked the 270-page bill, which actually received support from the air traffic controllers' union, which identified the lack of funding and dated equipment as the reason behind its backing.

At the end of March, Shuster expressed hope for the bill and alluded to a possible bipartisan alliance. "There's certainly Democratic opposition,” Shuster said, “but I've talked to a handful of Democratic senators that are very, very interested in what we are trying to do, and I think may be supportive of it.”

It seems clear that the TSA is without funds, things aren’t working and people are angry. There’s only one part of the process left.

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