Staggeringly long lines at the nation's airports this spring have led officials in Chicago, New York City, Atlanta and Seattle to discuss turning security over to private contractors, instead of employees of the Transportation Security Administration.
"It seems to me that it's broken now and it can't get much worse," Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, one of a group of aldermen urging the city to give TSA officers the boot, said in an interview. "Why not give private security a chance?"
Twenty-two airports use private contractors to handle airport security instead of TSA officers. Reviews by consultants and government agencies have found that private screeners perform at the same level or modestly better than TSA-staffed operations, with higher marks for customer service and flexibility.
But private contractors staff a tiny fraction of the nation's more than 450 airports. Outside of San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo., airports that use private security are small — such as the facility in Jackson Hole, Wyo. It is not clear that having multiple airports privatize would fix TSA-related issues, since the TSA still runs the system, approves the contractors, makes the rules, and writes the checks from the same limited pot of federal money.
"There's this weird belief that if a corporation does something, it's good, but if the government does something it's bad," said security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center. "There's a lot of things the TSA could do differently, but putting it in private hands will not solve any of the problems."
The problems, private or public, include inadequate funding and a tricky mission — trying to stop something horrible but unlikely, said Schneier, who comments frequently on airport security and terrorism.
"The thing they're preventing almost never happens, so you're stuck in a world where everything is a false alarm," Schneier said.
The private option
The TSA was created after 9/11. Before then, airlines supplied security.
The agency has faced criticism over the years — about everything from overzealous and privacy-violating pat-downs to letting potential dangers escape detection. A 2015 investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that banned items could be smuggled through checkpoints 95 percent of the time.
On the other hand, the TSA can point to what has not happened — since 9/11, no U.S. commercial airplane has been bombed or hijacked, while terrorists have downed planes in other countries. The disappearance of an EgyptAir plane last week is being investigated as a possible terrorist attack.
After the TSA was formed, five airports retained private staffing for security, including San Francisco, Kansas City and Greater Rochester in New York. By 2009, only nine more airports had gained TSA approval for private screeners. Critics said the TSA was making it too difficult.
In 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act required the TSA to accept and review all applications for private security screening within 120 days. TSA's target is to have the contract completed and operational within a year of the application submission, said a report by Steven Baldwin Associates, an airport management consulting firm.
Given how long the process takes, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters on Friday that even if the city applied to get a private contractor now, it would not solve the line problem this summer.
Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said that the benefits of privatization are "very marginal and there's a huge cost in time associated with the transition."
"We're not closing the door," she said. "We'll evaluate it along with other things for the long term. But there's a lot of other technology improvements that deserve more focus than that."
The long lines at the nation's airports have been blamed on a number of factors — TSA staff reductions combined with a higher-than-expected increase in air traffic, overly optimistic guesses of how many people would sign up for expedited screening programs such as PreCheck, checked baggage fees that encourage fliers to carry more stuff onto the plane, and heightened security.
Last year, the TSA stopped a "managed inclusion" program that allowed workers to randomly select people out of lines, screen them for explosives and allow them to use the shorter PreCheck line. This helped cut the number of passengers getting expedited screening from nearly 50 percent in 2014 to about 26 percent.
Reacting to anger over lines of more than two hours at O'Hare International Airport, the TSA promised to hire close to 800 officers nationwide, and put up more funding for part-time workers and overtime. The TSA plans to send 58 more security officers and four bomb-sniffing canine teams to Chicago airports immediately. After meeting with local officials in Chicago last week, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger admitted that summer will still be a challenge.
The union representing TSA officers said the planned increase isn't nearly enough. The TSA currently has about 42,000 officers across the country, down from 47,000 in 2013, while passenger volume is up 15 percent, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA officers.
In Chicago, there were 1,365 full-time TSA officers at O'Hare in 2015, down from 1,740 in 2005, according to the agency. At Midway, there were 331 full-time staffers last year, down from 10 years ago when there 471 officers.
J. David Cox Sr., national president of the TSA officers union, said privatization at Chicago airports would be a "terrible mistake."
"You'd be placing lives at risk so inexperienced private corporations can place profits over passengers," Cox said.
The pros and cons
Airport management consultant Steven Baldwin said a privatization benefit is flexibility. A private company can respond more quickly to changing demands for officers, though the budget is still limited by government funding, he said.
Private contractors also work well for certain types of airports — Kansas City, for example, has a terminal with multiple checkpoints, and workers can be shifted quickly depending on need, the Baldwin report found. Neither San Francisco nor Kansas City has reported the lines seen at O'Hare and Midway.
A private company also may be a better fit for a mentally taxing, stressful and ultimately boring job with a lot of burnout, said DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. TSA officers leave at a rate of about 100 per week — though Neffenger said that it's mostly part-time officers who quit.
"Bureaucracies don't do well in that environment," said Schwieterman. "Private firms can motivate people with bonuses — they can accept high turnover and replace people quickly."
Schneier disagrees, saying that the government is better equipped for security, since this kind of work — just like policing and running prisons — should not depend on a profit motive.
He noted that a plane is a "unique failure mode" compared to other means of transportation — if a bomb is planted on a train, many but probably not all people will die. If a bomb is on a plane, everybody usually dies, Schneier said.
Taking a knife away from grandma is not preventing terrorism — it is annoying somebody. But that doesn't mean the country doesn't need the TSA, and it needs to be adequately funded, even if there are things it could do better, said Schneier, a frequent flier who uses PreCheck.
"Airline security is the last line of defense, and it's not a very good one," said Schneier. "And that's the way it goes."
Chicago Tribune's John Byrne contributed.