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Airport security, a no win situation

Jack Balshaw 11/28/01

Should airport security be privatized or operated by the government? That was the question a week or two ago. Wait a minute, it's privatized NOW!! With all the rhetoric and ideology about private VS government operation, it has been completely overlooked that the private airlines now contract with the private security companies to operate a private system based on private business-to-business contracts.

How come it's OK to knock the Federal government because the private contractors and the private airlines are doing a poor job? The government tests the system by trying to sneak items through but it can only fine the airlines or security companies. If the fine is less than corrective action would cost, nothing gets done.

If the private security company isn't doing the job, how come the private airlines don't fire them? Remember the ability to fire people was a big factor for those opposing federalization of the security personnel.

But, it looks like we're going to get a totally federal system for three years at least. I'm not sure this is a win for those who were pushing for it. If the system isn't implemented immediately or isn't perfect (100% accuracy), it will be the government's fault. If the lines are long, it will be the government's fault. If, to get perfection and speed, the costs go up, it will be the government's fault. From a federal manager's point of view, I'm not sure I would have wanted to win this argument.

To digress for a moment; a big arguing point for using the system of private security managed by a government agency was "that's how the Europeans do it and it works". How come these same legislators won't accept as an argument for national health care, " that's how the Europeans do it and it works"?

Back to airports. Remember prior to September 11 the big issue at airports was the number of flights that leave or arrive on time? That and the increasing number of canceled flights. Now, people accept completely evacuating whole concourses if it's thought one person may have bypassed security. They're willing to arrive three hours early for flights that mostly are in the air for less time then that. As the September 11 incident becomes further and further in the past, how long do you think the public will be so understanding and cooperative? (My estimate is March 2002.)

But the process will improve. Personnel and their training will improve; machines will be developed to more quickly and accurately check for bombs; people may even start bringing less luggage.

Unfortunately, nothing will eliminate the fear that has been created. The extraordinary screening efforts will remind each traveler of potential danger. And, the long waits will give them time to think about it. The lack of any attempt to take over a plane will be "proof" the system is working. (The last previous hijacking was in 1991, does that prove the present system was working?). Therefore, the new system will be permanent.

We will feel and be safer, but the price will be a big pain.

I label all the media attention being given to this problem as more "Conditization". The media blew up the Gary Condit incident to a never ending, 24/7, national news event. Do you remember now that he, the lockbox and on time airline arrivals were the most important news in the country? Now we're getting Afghan and Airline security as our 24/7 diet. Are 15-minute updates on these topics all that important? Or have we come to react like Pavlov's dog, reasoning that anything that is continually reported must be important?

The bad news is that it's so boring. The good news is that, because it's so boring and negative, the public will soon tire of it and the media will have to nominate something else to keep our attention.

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