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Fixing Airport Security

November 1, 2001
By Robert W. Poole Jr. and Viggo Butler

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have forced us to rethink the issue of airport security. It's become quite clear the present system is not adequate to the task.

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The September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have forced us to rethink the issue of airport security. It's become quite clear the present system is not adequate to the task.

The most fundamental problem with airport security in the U.S. is its fragmentation. Security today is the joint responsibility of the FAA, airport operators, and airlines. Everybody is responsible for airport security . . . which means nobody is really in charge.

Some observers have called for creating a federal service to take over most, if not all, airport security functions. But merely changing the uniforms will not change either the nature of the work or the incentives to cut corners in the name of everyday convenience. What's needed is a single point of responsibility at each airport, held accountable for every aspect of security. That responsible and accountable party should be the airport owner/operator.

A Model that Works

Airport security is already handled this way in Europe. London's airports, especially Heathrow, have long been extremely sensitive to the terrorist threat. Security there is first-rate.

Airport owner/operator BAA employs all the passenger screening people itself, and pays them decent wages. Turnover is but a fraction of what is typical of U.S. airports. Some of these employees eventually move up to other positions within the company. At the London airports, every single bag is X-rayed (which has never been done for domestic flights in this country), and there is positive matching of bags with passengers (again, unheard-of in this country).

London typifies a large-scale trend in Europe toward a more professional model of airport management. In Europe today, an airport is seen as a business: an enterprise run by qualified (and highly paid) professionals, serving a number of different customers, and expected to make a profit (and pay taxes!) by doing so.

A growing number of these airports have been shifted into private ownership over the past decade. Since Margaret Thatcher converted the former British Airports Authority into the publicly traded BAA in 1987, a total of 17 U.K. airports have shifted into the private sector. In each case, the corporate model has led to more professional management and increased resources for meeting customer needs--including security.

By contrast, the United States is still stuck with the old model: the airport as a no-frills place to get people on and off planes, at the lowest possible cost. Run by civil servants, it is not expected to take (entrepreneurial) risks, or to take major responsibilities, or to seek profits--but simply to do what is expected of it by the airlines and the FAA.

Although there are dedicated professionals running some U.S. airports, all too often we have positions filled by political appointees--like the former governor of Massachusetts' driver, who is the current chief of airport security at Boston's Logan Airport, where two of the doomed September 11 flights originated.

The Accountable Airport

Thus, one way to improve U.S. airport security is to shift from the nonprofit, bureaucratic, civil-servant model of airport management to the emerging global corporate model. An airport becomes a major business enterprise, run by world-class professionals who take on the full responsibilities of ownership, including a serious, pro-active commitment to security.

This does not mean all major airports would be sold or leased to private companies. Many of the European airports now being privatized (e.g., Amsterdam and Frankfurt) have been run for years as government corporations, with one or more units of government as their shareholders. The important thing is they were run as real businesses: controlling their assets, taking entrepreneurial risks, making profits, and paying taxes.

Even before America's major airports are "corporatized," we can take immediate measures to provide stronger incentives for security accountability. The FAA should establish outcome-based security requirements, and make each airport operator solely responsible for compliance. Airports that flunk should face hugely increased financial penalties, and even the threat of shut-down.

If the FAA can yank the operating certificate of an airline that doesn't measure up on safety compliance, why not hold airports accountable in the same way?

Robert Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, is director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles. Viggo Butler, the retired CEO of Lockheed Air Terminal, recently served on the FAA's Research, Engineering & Development Advisory Committee and chaired its security subcommittee. This essay is derived from RPPI Rapid Response No. 106, released on September 21 and available in its entirety at

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