Costs Of Private vs Gov’t Passenger Screening In The U.S.

The United States Government, like all organizations with operational expenses, is seeking to reduce its costs while creating a more effective workflow.  As the Government seeks to reduce its debt, trim excess spending and bring its operational costs down, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would appear among the most resistant to change.


While the TSA is among the youngest of Federal Agencies, its costs since its inception in November 2001 have spiraled out of control in an effort to be a security show piece, at times at the expense of true operational superiority.   An area in which the TSA has been most resistant is the privatization of airport passenger screening and cargo screening through the Screening Partnership Program (SPP).


Recent reports from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure show a tangible financial and operational divide between airport security carried out the TSA and airports with privatized security. While previous US Government Accountability Office reports show significant cost savings to privatized security, and Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office reports have shown higher banned item detection rates than their federalized counterparts, the newer figures, comparing airports of relatively equal size and operating cost structures put federalized security in a different light that is easier to understand on a passenger level.


According to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure the cost per passenger screening at San Francisco International Airport, where passenger screening is privatized, is US$2.42, where as the costs per passenger screening at the comparable Los Angeles International Airport, where the TSA handles passenger screening, is US$4.22.


Overall random tests of security at airports in the United States with privatized security show screeners to be as much as 65% more efficient than their counterparts in the TSA. The efficiency calculation is based not only on the ability to detect banned items passing through screening, but also the number of passengers screened, as well as privatized screeners receiving fewer passenger complaints than their federal counterparts.


With the Transportation Security Administration having spent more then US$2,000,000,000 on the recruiting and training of Transportation Security Officers (TSO) since it entered U.S. airports on the 12th of February 2002, the agency needs to create a more effective agency.   The TSA has all the resources at its disposal to create a more effective security environment at a greatly reduced cost, as well as the legal obligation to allow airports to seek out privatized security, as dictated by Public Law 107-71, the same law that created the TSA.


If the TSA reviewed PL 107-71,  § 44920. Security screening opt-out program, they may find a healthy balance between a federalized and privatized airport security partnership, benefiting aviation security, the traveling public at a greatly reduced cost the United States Government.


Happy Flying!




  1. I would think the layout differences between lax and sfo May account for much of that difference.

  2. Matt,

    The two airports for the research report were chosen because they are the most closely matched in terms of operations and operating costs.

    Happy Flying!


  3. I think Matt was implying that since LAX has more Terminals, it has more checkpoints (8 terminals for LAX vs 6 for SFO). However SFO tends to have more lanes per checkpoint because of this so it’s more of a moot point.

    The real reason for the savings however is because the TSA managers at the airports have no real incentive for saving money. Covenant, the contractor at SFO does.

    As such they tend to do some innovative things with personnel management. Such as shifting personnel from checkpoint to checkpoint on an as needed basis using both airline flight information and the airports CCTV system to actually watch line length not only at the checkpoints, but the ticket counters as well so they can anticipate increased traffic at specific checkpoints and route additional staff to open lanes at those points.

    With that type of flexible staff management, they can easily handle as much traffic as another airport with less staff reducing costs. Since their contract is based on specific metrics, they have incentive to keep customer complaints down because it effects their bottomline. The senior TSA staff have no incentives other then stern discussions when dealing with costs, passenger throughput or passenger complaint metrics so they have no real reason to proactively do anything about the problems.

    Further the same CCTV usage is one reason why SFO got their hand slapped for “cheating” when they did their inspection. The control center was able to track the TSA inspectors attempting to pass prohibited items through the checkpoints and alert the checkpoint when one of them was passing through. Now to me that actually increases effectiveness and is not really cheating.

  4. Hi Fish,

    I fully understand your point about reducing cost, but I doubt making this TSA checkpoints a private business will give you the desired effectiveness and efficiency.

    Here in the Netherlands the security checks at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam are fully privately owned businesses. Schiphol (as a customer) requests quotes from various security firms and the one with the best bid gets the job for a year. Fully private, fully commercialized. This commercialization of this service is where the problems start: These businesses want to make a profit. A big profit if possible. The way they do this is cutting cost drastically. They not only cut the number of lanes and the number of crew per lane, so waiting time explodes, but the worse is they cut the education level of the security people.

    The result is that we have a security team of badly mannered ‘monkeys’ that have no respect whatsoever for your personal privacy. I hate security @ AMS. I strongly feel that the TSA is doing a far better and more professional job than ‘our’ private security people are doing. Yes, the USA had his share of TSA related incidents involving kids, elderly and handicapped people. These incidents are in the press a lot, but are just a small percentage of all the people that flow through the TSA screening points each and every day. I can name you a few incidents at AMS at well. These are kept out of the press, because of the cultural differences between the USA and the Netherlands. (i.e. We cannot easily file a lawsuit for damages when we are treated badly or if our luggage is damaged by security crew and if we can the amount paid for damages is so small is hardly covers for the legal costs.)

    I travel the USA a lot and because of my ‘irregular’ itineraries I get selected for extra screening a lot. I found this process (which mostly happens at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport) to be very professional, polite, respectful and efficient. I wish the Amsterdam Schiphol guys would get their training at the TSA.

    So bottom line: Costs is not everything. Unfortunately since 9-11 these security checks have become a part of our travel routine and it is costing us a fortune. But realize that if you go private, you will also introduce issues that will make the experience for the traveler a lot worse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *