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Lax Airport Security is a Failure of the Market
Published on Wednesday, September 26, 2001
Lax Airport Security is a Failure of the Market
by Matthew Duss
Among the tragedies of Sept 11 was that airports were publicly forewarned as long as five years ago about nonexistent security and chose to do nothing. Did the profit motive get in the way?

One of the doomed jets took off from Newark Airport, in New Jersey. In 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration began investigating a story in the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, in which a reporter easily slipped through security at Newark Airport, walked freely around the baggage area, observed security guards sleeping at their posts, even made his way onto the tarmac and stood with his foot on the tire of an airliner. This story appeared in the Record on September 11, 1996. The FAA’s conclusion? Security at Newark Airport is lax. Exactly five years later, that fact would be conclusively and terribly demonstrated.

Up until now in the United States, airport security has been handled by the airlines themselves, which contract with security services, such as Huntleigh Corporation, the largest airport security provider in the country. Huntleigh also happens to be one of three security contractors at Sea-Tac Airport. These agencies pay between $6 and $10 per hour, in most cases do not provide any benefits, do not support unionization, and provide what many employees and critics agree is inadequate training. In most other countries, certainly those in Europe and the Middle East which have had more immediate experiences with terrorism, airport security is considered a matter of national importance. Security personnel are trained professionals, not over-worked minimum-wage earners in Captain Kangaroo jackets.

On Sept. 19, 2001, the Seattle Times reported that a Huntleigh-employed security screener named Teuila Tuitele was “sent home” when she showed up for work the morning after her comments about poor training and working conditions at the airport appeared in the Seattle Sunday Times. Tuitele had told the Times that she didn’t feel she had been properly trained, that security workers were not rotated to reduce fatigue as stated by company policy, and that Huntleigh does not test employees’ vision as required by the FAA. Tuitele’s salary, after 11 months, is $8.05 per hour. A Huntleigh corporate memo dated Sept. 14 stated that employees could be fired for talking to the media, though Huntleigh denies that Tuitele has been fired. A Huntleigh representative did not return my phone calls.

The failure of the low-bid system to provide for public security is not a surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with economics and incentives. This would seem not to include most free-market zealots, who maintain that privatization is the answer to our problems. In order to secure contracts, security companies must under-bid competitors. Seeking to push up stock value and maintain shareholder confidence, airlines and their security contractors cut costs, and, as with all corporations, those cuts aren’t going to come from the salaries of executives. Rather than eliminate costs through low worker pay and poor training, though, the result is that those costs have been dumped onto society. On September 11, our society paid dearly.

Over the next months and probably years we’ll be asking ourselves how this happened. The major news-media did a fine job of keeping us informed in the terrible moments following the attack, but have since slipped back into their familiar role of government cheerleader. The other evening on “Nightline,” Ted Koppel got not-so-wildly-divergent views from two men, the first of whom advocated striking Afghanistan immediately and powerfully, the second of whom advised waiting a bit before striking powerfully. Unsurprisingly, there was no room made for discussion of any option other than decisive military action. Another idea that you probably will not hear discussed on “Nightline” or any of the other mainstream news programs is that lax airport security, which was unquestionably one the of the factors contributing to the heinous success of the terrorist’s attack, highlights a failure of the free market to provide for our safety.

Matthew Duss is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington. I am a member of the New Style Collective, a group supporting local independent art and research. He can be reached at:


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