According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), U.S. airlines and foreign airlines serving the United States carry about 900 million passengers per year systemwide on more than 9 million flights (domestic and international). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that the total number of enplanements will grow to 1.2 billion by 2036. More than 400,000 Americans work in the airline industry. There are more than 5,100 public-use airports in the United States. The busiest airport in the United States (in terms of passenger count) — Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson — has more than 2,700 flights arrive and depart each day. More and more Americans are leaving the ranks of those who have never flown. And that is a good thing, since, on the basis of statistics of deaths per million miles traveled, it is much, much safer to fly than to drive a car or ride a motorcycle.
But in conjunction with the increasing number of airline flights and airline passengers and the decreasing number of crashes and fatalities associated with airline travel, airports remain under government control. Government at some level controls not only the security at airports, but the airports themselves.
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) was created by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 that was passed with only minuscule opposition in the U.S. House of Representatives and signed into law by George W. Bush on November 19, 2001. It amended federal transportation law to make the TSA responsible for security in all modes of transportation, including:
(1) civil aviation security, and related research and development activities;
(2) security responsibilities over other modes of transportation that are exercised by DOT;
(3) day-to-day federal security screening operations for passenger air transportation and intrastate air transportation;
(4) policies, strategies, and plans for dealing with threats to transportation;
(5) domestic transportation during a national emergency (subject to the secretary of Transportation’s control and direction), including aviation, rail, and other surface transportation, and maritime transportation, and port security; and
(6) management of security information, including notifying airport or airline security officers of the identity of individuals known to pose a risk of air piracy or terrorism or a threat to airline or passenger safety.
Although the TSA was originally part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), after the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the TSA was transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003.
According to the TSA website, the agency’s mission is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” Its vision is to “provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.” Its core values are “integrity, innovation, and team spirit.” Its work-force expectations are “hard work, professionalism, and integrity.” The TSA employs about 55,000 people and has a budget of more than
$7 billion a year.
The most common task of TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) is to screen passengers and baggage destined for commercial airline flights. Airports are allowed to opt out of federal-government-provided security under the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP) and have private contractors provide their airport security. However, airports must apply to the TSA and be approved, the TSA is the entity that selects the contractors, and the contractors must still follow TSA procedures. There are currently 21 airports that have been approved to participate in the SPP, the largest one being the San Francisco International Airport.
The biggest complaint about the TSA is the long wait times to get through its security lines. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport last year, two- to three-hour waits forced 450 passengers to miss their flights on American Airlines and the head of the TSA had to visit the Chicago airport and issue an apology.
In 2011, the U.S. Travel Association (“the national, non-profit organization representing all components of the travel industry”) concluded a year-long project to formulate recommendations for travel-enhancing changes to the goals and performance of the TSA. A blue-ribbon panel that included a former secretary of the DHS and the CEO of American Airlines issued a report, “A Better Way,” which made fourteen recommendations for reforming the TSA based on “the experience of security professionals, input from industry stakeholders, advice from privacy advocates and surveys of travelers.” The U.S. Travel Association has just issued a new report — this time with fifteen recommendations in seven areas — that urges “the new administration and the new Congress to place a renewed focus on refining and enhancing the operations of the TSA.”
“Transforming Security at Airports: An Update on Progress and a Plan for the Future of Aviation Security” offers “achievable steps Congress and the TSA can take right away to improve security and give travelers a better flying experience.” The fifteen recommendations outlining how the TSA can improve include redirecting airline passenger fees to cover the cost of and improve TSA screening operations, expanding the TSA PreCheck program to qualified travelers, ending repetitive security checks for bags that have already been screened, deploying modern staffing solutions, further utilizing canine screening units, and encouraging stakeholders to improve the checkpoint experience for travelers. On the basis of its research, the U.S. Travel Association believes that “travelers would take between two and three more trips per year if TSA hassles could be reduced without compromising security effectiveness — and these additional trips would add $85 billion in spending and 888,000 more jobs to our economy.”
Other criticisms of the TSA focus on the agency’s ineptitude, criminal activity, inefficiency, waste, sexual assaults, and abuses, which are all notorious and legion. In tests conducted by undercover teams at dozens of airports, TSA screeners failed to detect explosives and weapons a majority of the time. Hundreds of TSA personnel have been fired for stealing items from travelers’ luggage. The millimeter wave scanners used to scan passengers have high false-positive rates, resulting in many unnecessary pat-downs. The TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), in which Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) observe passengers as they go through security checkpoints and look for behaviors that might indicate a higher security risk, was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office and found to be ineffective. Many passengers have reported that TSA screeners used pat-downs as a means to sexually assault them. TSA agents at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport detained a 9-year old boy and his family, causing them to miss their flight and wait 15 hours for another one, because they mistook the boy’s pacemaker for a bomb hidden in his chest.
Citing national-security concerns, the TSA has never in all the years of its existence provided any evidence that it has actually stopped a single terrorist from boarding an airplane. There is, in fact, no evidence that the TSA has prevented any more terrorist attacks than the private contractors who handled the airport security checkpoints before the Aviation and Transportation Security Act went into effect.
Government ownership and control
It is a given that governments own courthouses, election offices, military bases, police stations, jails, prisons, city halls, governors mansions, and capitol buildings. But as governments at all levels have strayed from their legitimate purpose, they have assumed ownership and control over many things that could be handled by the private sector.
One of those things is airports. In the United States, local governments own and operate the vast majority of airports, sometimes through public entities such as an airport authority. Such was not always the case. According to a recent Cato Institute Tax & Budget Bulletin, “Privatizing U.S. Airports,” “In the early years of commercial aviation, numerous private airports operated alongside those established by state and local governments.” Private airports once served major cities such as Miami, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The site of the Pentagon was once occupied by the private Washington-Hoover Airport. Unfortunately, many city governments were eager to own their own airports and the industry soon became dominated by government-owned facilities. From the very beginning, the U.S. military and the Post Office favored government-owned airports over private ones.
During the Great Depression, the federal government began providing aid to government-owned airports through New Deal programs. This led to a further crowding out of private airports around the country as federal funding of airport investment surpassed state and local funding. The federal government began to tax airline passengers after the passage of the Revenue Act of 1941. During World War II — in the name of national defense — Congress appropriated funds to construct and improve 250 government-owned airports while at the same time transferring unneeded military bases to state and local governments for public airport use.
After World War II — again, in the name of national defense — the Federal Airport Act of 1946 began regular federal aid to government-owned airports. Congress created the FAA in 1958, replacing previous agencies involved in air traffic control and airport development. In 1970, because of the passage of the Airport and Airway Development Act, all aviation taxes and fees were channeled into the new Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) to be used for FAA operations, the provision of air traffic-control services, and grants-in-aid to airports. An additional source of funding for airports is the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC), first authorized by Congress in 1990. PFCs are imposed by local airports, but limited by the maximum charge set by Congress, currently $4.50 per passenger per flight segment. Smaller airports generally also rely on grants from state and local governments.
With federal funding comes federal control, and with federal control comes complexity, bureauc-racy, and politics resulting in increased costs, market distortions, and misallocation of resources. The primary grant program is the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). Established by the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982, the AIP funds airport capital projects, such as runway expansions. According to the Cato study on privatizing U.S. airports, federal funding is “both through formula and discretionary grants under a complex set of rules and regulations” that are “determined by political and bureaucratic factors, not by marketplace demands, so the money is spent inefficiently.”
According to a recent Heritage Foundation backgrounder report, “End of the Runway: Rethinking the Airport Improvement Program and the Federal Role in Airport Funding,” “The current system of funneling passenger taxes through the federal government and back to airports via a politically directed mechanism makes little economic sense and has proved detrimental to airports and the aviation system.” Funds end up being siphoned “from the airports that serve the most travelers and require the most investment to those that move the fewest.” Because grants carry many federal requirements, “Airports must spend a large amount of time and resources navigating the large federal bureaucracy and conforming to various federal regulations, including those imposed on general airport practices, use of revenue, land acquisition, and providing opportunities for small businesses.” Airports “must focus a great deal of resources simply complying with this mountain of federal regulations instead of running the airport as a business.” PFC revenue can be used only for “FAA-approved projects that enhance safety, security, or capacity; reduce noise; or increase air carrier competition.” Regulations concerning spending such as “Buy America” provisions, adherence to the Davis–Bacon Act, and the requirement that contractors use union labor drive up costs and “divert passenger tax revenues to favored special interests at the expense of much-needed airport improvements.” The federal government has “limited airports’ ability to achieve self-sufficiency and solidified their reliance on federal grants and other regulated means of revenues for capital funding.”
It is interesting that government ownership of airports is an American phenomenon. According to the aforementioned Cato study, “The private sector plays a larger role in the aviation infrastructure of other countries than the United States. Hundreds of airports around the world have been partly or fully privatized. There are dozens of international companies that own and operate airports, finance airport privatization, or participate in projects to finance, build, and operate new airports and airport terminals.” A recent study by the Airports Council International (ACI) found that 47 percent of airports in the 28 European Union (EU) countries were either “mostly” or “fully” private, including airports in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lisbon, Venice, Rome, Naples, Antwerp, Budapest, Vienna, Brussels, and Zurich. And even government-owned airports are often structured as corporations with 51 percent ownership by the government and 49 percent by the private sector, such as Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and the major airports in Spain. Privatization of some airports has occurred in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Brazil.
The real issue
Clearly, as the Cato report concludes,
- Airports should be self-funded by revenues from passengers, airlines, concessions, and other sources.
- Federal subsidies should be phased out, and state and local governments should privatize their airports to improve efficiency, competitiveness, and passenger benefits.
- Privatization and increased competition would boost the performance of America’s aviation infrastructure.
- Airlines, passengers, private-plane owners, and taxpayers would all benefit from a more entrepreneurial and commercial approach to airport operation.
Short of privatization, the federal government should “reduce or eliminate the income tax exemption for municipal bonds to put private airport financing on a level playing field with government financing,” “phase out the AIP program (at least for medium and large commercial airports) to encourage greater self-funding of airport capital spending,” and “eliminate the cap on PFCs to allow airports to fund operations through user charges on their own passengers.”
The conclusions and suggestions of the Heritage report are similar.
Instead of continuing this top-down system, Congress should eliminate the AIP, reduce passenger ticket taxes, and reform federal regulations that prohibit airports from charging market prices for their services. These reforms would eradicate the inefficient and inequitable distribution of flier resources and would allow airports to fund capital improvements in a local, self-reliant, and free-market manner.
Airports “should be able to derive their own revenue and be self-sufficient just like any other business.” Privatization “would increase efficiency and improve management.”
And just as clearly, the need for “refining and enhancing the operations of the TSA” would be unnecessary if airport security were also privatized. Not to mention the need for stopping the ineptitude, criminal activity, inefficiency, waste, sexual assaults, and abuses of the TSA.
Yet, there is something missing from these reports on airport privatization, funding, and the TSA. The main reason, and ultimately the most important reason, that governments at any level should not own, operate, fund, finance, regulate, or provide security at airports is that it is not the proper role of government to do so. The only legitimate purpose of government — at any level — is to keep the peace; to prosecute, punish, and exact restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or otherwise violate the personal or property rights of others; to provide a forum for dispute resolution; and to constrain those who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful actions. No government or government entity should own an airport any more than it should own a convenience store, a laundromat, or an auto repair shop.
It would “give travelers a better flying experience” if the TSA increased efficiency, shortened wait times, better respected privacy, eliminated unnecessary pat-downs, and didn’t steal from or unnecessarily inconvenience travelers. But failing to do those things is not the reason the TSA should be abolished. The only security business the federal government should be in is national security. There is no reasonable or logical justification — and certainly no constitutional or philosophical one — for the federal government to provide security for non-federal entities. It is the owners of the airports who should not only provide security, but also make the rules and regulations for their security agents.
That does not mean that other government entities that own airports should necessarily provide security themselves. Local governments can be just as inefficient, just as bureaucratic, and just as burdensome as the federal government. But just as government entities that own airports regularly contract out concessions or maintenance, so could they hire a private contractor to take care of all their security needs (as most of them did before September 11) or provide or contract out general airport security and leave it up to the airlines to provide airline security or share responsibility for screening passengers with the airlines.
The main thing is to get federal TSA agents and regulations out of airports, not to make the agents friendlier and the regulations less burdensome to “give travelers a better flying experience.” Although there is certainly nothing wrong with doing those things in the meantime, we should never lose sight of the ultimate goal of limiting the activities of the federal government to its constitutional functions.
Ideally, all airports should be owned by private concerns that make their own decisions about security — just like jewelry stores, amusement parks, and malls. Because building, operating, and maintaining airports and airplanes are very expensive undertakings, airports and airlines have tremendous incentives to keep undesirable people and products out of airports and off airline flights to protect the traveling public and preserve their multi-million-dollar investments. There is no reason that airports and airlines should not be treated the same as any other business that has to compete for customers and set its own policies and procedures.
Freeing the airports not only should be done, it can be done. It was done with the airlines, which were once under heavy government regulation. The federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulated all domestic interstate airline flights, and actually set airline fares, routes, and schedules. Yet, the CAB was gradually abolished beginning in 1978 after the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. Under deregulation, prices fell, airlines expanded their routes, airlines modernized their equipment, and the volume of air travel dramatically increased. The airlines today are not totally free, but they are certainly much freer than they were under the control of the CAB. They should be completely freed from the heavy hand of government along with the airports they fly in and out of.
It goes without saying that the AIP program should be ended, the AATF should be liquidated, the FAA should be eliminated, the TSA should be abolished, all government-owned airports should be sold to the highest bidder, all taxes on airline tickets should be repealed, and all government regulations concerning airports should be rescinded. The airports should be freed from government ownership and control, not just in the name of efficiency, competitiveness, and modernization, but because limiting government to its legitimate functions is simply the right thing to do.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.