Don't Let the TSA Ruin Your Summer Vacation

Not a threat.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

American airports, uninviting in the best of times, have lately descended into bedlam. Security lines are stretching for hours. Passengers are missing flights. Some places are even resorting to clowns, candy and miniature horses to calm the flying public. Things will only get worse as summer vacations get under way.

Improving this experience is possible -- but there is no easy fix.

The Transportation Security Administration, predictably, wants more money and staff. It notes that Congress has cut its budget, air travel has surged, and long lines are the predictable result. Don't buy it: The TSA has a $7.4 billion budget and a staff of more than 50,000, yet it can't meet even the most basic security requirements. More cash alone won't solve its problems.

Some in Congress think using private contractors in lieu of TSA agents would help. That's more promising: Studies suggest it could boost efficiency, reduce costs and improve security. A pilot project at 22 airports called the Screening Partnership Program has been largely successful.

Yet contractors still have to follow procedures that are set by the TSA and enforced by politicians. And that's where the real trouble begins.

By law, the TSA publishes a list of items that are prohibited on planes. The list is divided into topical subcategories and includes dozens of objects, some described with dizzying specificity ("all scissors except those that are not metal and do not have pointed tips, and which have a blade length less than 4 inches as measured from the fulcrum").

Hunting for such items is the grim lot of the TSA agent. But the list no longer makes sense. It ignores security improvements, such as reinforced cockpit doors, that have eliminated the threat many of those items once posed. It distracts screeners from looking for more dangerous stuff, such as explosives and toxins. It gives terrorists a useful catalog of items to avoid. And it leads to long lines in unsecured areas -- which make inviting targets in their own right.

Even the most sensible proposals to pare back the banned-items list have led to theatrical outrage from Congress. As a result, the list hasn't been significantly updated in nearly a decade, even as threats to aviation have evolved. It should be scrapped entirely, except for the ban on truly dangerous items, such as explosives. Airport screeners shouldn't be rummaging for illicit scissors; they should be ensuring that no one blows up a plane.

Such an approach to security -- based on assessing risks instead of checking boxes -- would lead to shorter lines, safer planes, and a generally less-awful day at the airport.

There are other factors that contribute to these delays, of course. If airlines didn’t charge a fee for checked bags, security lines might be less congested. Airports and airlines should do a better job of alerting travelers to delays. And the TSA could be more aggressive about promoting its PreCheck program, which allows passengers to use an expedited screening process.

In the meantime, weary traveler, breathe deeply, pet the tiny horses and try to keep calm.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.