John Stossel: Federalizing Airports

Since Sept. 11, there has been lots of criticism of airport security. We all want to make flying safe, but I get nervous when 100 senators say, "We know the solution: Let government run things."

"If you don't have federalism, it doesn't work," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

"You can't professionalize unless you federalize," agreed Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

In a 100-0 vote, the Senate passed a security bill that would put all 28,000 screeners and other airport security personnel on the federal payroll.

A similar bill is being sponsored in the House, with Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., calling it "a matter of life and death."

Most travelers we interviewed at an airport agreed that government should run airport security.

"When the federal [government] gets involved, it's a good deal," said one man.

"I would feel safer, yes I would," said another.

It sounds right: Got a problem? Professionalize it. Bring in the government.

But wait a second. If you want efficiency and professionalism, is bringing in a big-government bureaucracy really the way to go?

The biggest professional federal agency outside the military is the U.S. Postal Service. Even with taxpayer subsidies, it cannot compete efficiently with private companies like United Parcel Service and Federal Express.

Government-run organizations don't always have the best track record.

Sept. 11: Government Failed

Politicians are outraged that airlines hired screeners who turned out to be ex-convicts, but a government study found that 150 of the IRS' seasonal workers had criminal records.

And how much do we know about the gun-carrying National Guardsmen now patrolling airports? Arizona discovered one was a felon who had been selling phony weapons permits. He passed the background check, which was performed through government law enforcement agencies. He was caught only because someone watching the soldiers on television recognized him.

The current screening system is far from perfect, but there is no evidence that on Sept. 11 airport screeners did anything wrong. Knives the size the hijackers apparently used were legal under government rules. It was government that failed. Customs and INS officials let the hijackers into the country even though three had expired visas. Six had no records. Yet now we're going to give the government more power?

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., suggests starting "with a fresh outlook here, giving the system a chance to work … We need the domestic equivalent of the Customs Service."

His plan would create a new agency with 28,000 new government employees. But this is not a new idea. Twenty years ago, airports in Europe had government-run security systems. They didn't always stop hijackings.

Fifteen years ago, most big European airports decided to try something other than just government-run security. They switched to private screeners, and since then, hijackings at those airports have dropped dramatically.

Government still sets the safety standards, so the screeners are supervised by government. But the advantage of private screeners is that there is competition. You can fire a bad company. You can't fire the government.

"We shouldn't go backward. We shouldn't go to where the centralized government or centralized body can do it all better," says Lior Zouker, who helped design the security systems used in Israel, and now works with European airports.

'100 Senators Can't Be Wrong'

Andrews says the European examples are not applicable. "I can't believe that they did the same kind of training that we're going to do here," he told me. "And with all due respect to them, that's their problem."

Ganske said I was wrong. He pulled out a press release from senators that said Italy and Spain use government screeners.

"In Europe, Italy, i.e., Rome, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, they all use public employees to perform passenger screening for security," he said.

But he and the senators' press release are wrong. We called the airports. Madrid's and Rome's airports both say they use private screening companies.

In any case, the politicians are still certain a government takeover is the right thing.

"One hundred United States Senators can't be wrong," said Ganske.

Oh, please. Only in Washington would they say you're not a professional unless you work for them. Give me a break!