Fear of Federalizing

Gattuso Op-Ed In The Washington Times<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Less than a month after the horrifying hijacking and destruction of four U.S. jetliners, Congress is closing in on legislation to beef up aviation security. With Americans still skittish about returning to the skies, everyone agrees on the need to do something. The question is: what?One thing that seems certain is that the federal government will take a much more direct role in aviation safety. Unfortunately, a rush to federalize could end up harming, rather than enhancing security.Congress is considering several ideas. Stronger cockpit doors will certainly be called for – a sensible move, although serious engineering questions remain as to how to do this. Air marshals will be returned to the skies. A big question here will be how the federal government will train the thousands needed, and whether they will let local, or private, law enforcement fill the gap. Lastly, federalization of airport security screening will proposed.This last element will likely be the most controversial. There are serious problems with the current system, as anyone who has had bags checked by a glassy-eyed, distracted X-ray screener can attest.(Although since the weapons said to be used were permissible under FAA rules, screening lapses likely weren't responsible for the Sept. 11 hijackings.) Early on, the airlines themselves asked to be relieved of responsibility for the process, naturally wanting no part of the liability or cost.The move to federalize this, and other, functions has been strengthened by a widespread view that safety and private markets just don't mix.Expressing a common view of politicians and pundits, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal argued a week after the attacks that airline customers were more interested in check-in speed and airport shopping than security, so airlines skimped on security. “The market didn't demand it, so they didn't supply it,” he wrote.This is simply wrong. The No. 1 demand of consumers, and the market, is safety. Losing passenger confidence in safety is the surest ticket to business failure, as Air Florida, Pan Am, and others could attest. For 23 years, since the deregulation of the airline industry, we've been told that safety will be traded off for profits. Instead, air travel has become safer, with the number of accidents steadily decreasing during those years. No hijackings had been seen since 1991.Rather than being at odds, markets and safety turned out to be inseparable allies.This doesn't mean there is no role for government in safety, or that the private sector never falters. It does mean government action can easily (and usually does) make things worse.That's the dilemma facing Congress now as it rushes forward with plans to take over airport screening. Despite overwhelming support for “federalizing” the job, it's unclear what that means. Many supporters picture teams of crack FBI agents at X-ray monitors. Yet, few policymakers are talking about giving this function to the FBI, and it's even unclear that the FBI would want it. More likely, the FAA, or a new agency within the Transportation Department, would take over the job. This is hardly comforting, given these agencies' less than stellar reputation for efficiency. Instead of the “Untouchables” ' Eliot Ness behind the X-ray machine, we could end up with Cliff Clavin from “Cheers.”Instead of relying on government employees, the Bush administration advocates using contract workers. This has advantages (you can't fire a civil servant). But the government's record here is hardly reassuring.The General Accounting Office has reported appalling security breaches at federal buildings, which use mostly contract workers. In recent investigations, its agents easily skirted security checkpoint, found guards hired without proper background checks, found improperly issued security credentials, and other problems. This hardly sounds like an improvement over the status quo.There are some alternatives to the current system that don't involve federalization. Robert Poole and Vigo Butler of the Reason Public Policy Institute, for instance, have suggested turning over security functions to airports themselves. This system is widely used in Europe, which generally gets higher marks for airport screening than the U.S. (Importantly, many major European airports, including London's Heathrow, are privately run and operated).Others have suggested creating a not-for-profit security corporation, although details have not yet been provided. Congress needs to move quickly on improving security at airports, but should be wary of easy answers. The rush to simply expand Washington's role and declare victory is strong, but very well could leave Americans with less safety, not more.James Gattuso is vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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