Efficient Airport Screening Could Bring Big Savings

March 2, 2006
One aviation security expert has done some number crunching to show the labor savings in dollar terms that would accrue from installing more efficient systems at every U.S. airport that could use them.

Most airport officials dream of the day when they can install an optimized arrangement of baggage screening machines. But the costs still are prohibitive.

Now, apparently for the first time, one aviation security expert has done some number crunching to show the labor savings in dollar terms that would accrue from installing more efficient systems at every U.S. airport that could use them. In most medium and larger facilities, this would mean getting the explosive detection systems (EDS) out of their lobbies and into an inline conveyer of connected machines down in the basement or in a separate building, out of the public's sight. At some airports, the optimal arrangement might combine EDS with the more time-consuming explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment.

Frequent congressional witness Robert Poole, who is the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Reason Foundation's director of transportation studies, has borrowed some year-old data from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to make some new calculations. If all U.S. airports had their EDS/ETD arrangements optimized, he figures the annual labor savings would be about $720 million.

The intelligence of Poole's approach can be quickly grasped. Airport passenger and baggage screening is congressionally mandated and is also mostly a federally run system. The inconveniences caused by inefficient security layouts are felt by passengers, airlines, airports, and the federal agency in charge of screening, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Meanwhile, the TSA has provided special additional funding for more efficient inline systems to a limited number of airports. But the agency has said all along that it can do no more because of the budgets it gets from Congress. The problem of funding new inline screening systems has usually been cast as a large, upfront expense that must either come from general airport revenue, special bonds or fees, or a TSA grant. But the labor-cost savings that Poole shows would accrue directly to the TSA and to the federal coffers that Congress monitors.

Poole's figures are summarized in the table opposite. The following text is a closely based adaptation of his calculations:

"First, we need to know how many baggage screeners are involved at each type of airport. Unfortunately, the TSA does not release this information, but we will make a guess that the equivalent of 50 percent of [Congress's national cap of] 45,000 TSA screeners are de-facto dedicated to baggage screening. Using data on baggage flow per year at the top 100 airports from Leigh Fischer Associates, and estimates for airports in the smaller categories, we have the comparative bag-processing workloads. Assuming that baggage screeners are distributed proportionally to workload, we then estimate how the 22,500 baggage screeners are distributed among the five categories of airports.

"Then, using the TSA/GAO calculation of 78 percent savings for shifting from stand-alone to inline systems at large airports, we estimate a reduction of 9,477 bag screeners at (the largest) category X airports. For small, all-ETD category IV airports, we assume that they don't have enough workload to justify a combined EDS/ETD solution, so we assume zero reductions there. For category III, we use the GAO estimate of 59 percent. And for category I and II airports, which are intermediate in size, we use the average of 78 and 59 percent, which is 68.5 percent. Altogether, that produces a total reduction in the need for baggage screeners of 16,173.

"Then we assume that one out of nine airports (11 percent) will not change bag-screening systems because it is not cost effective, thereby reducing the workforce saving from 16,173 to 14,394. Based on fiscal year 2005 TSA budget data reported by the GAO, the screening workforce budget was $2.424 billion. Averaged over 45,000 screeners, that's $53,867 apiece. But assuming that 5 to 6 percent of the budget is management, we can use $50,000 per screener as the approximate annual payroll savings from optimizing the baggage screening along these lines. Applied to 14,394 positions, that means an annual savings of $720 million."

(All this information is taken from Poole's January 2006 report, "Airport Security: Time for a New Model," available at http://www.reason.org/ps340.pdf.)

>>Contact: Robert Poole, Reason Foundation, (310) 391-2245, [email protected]<<

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