The TSA: A Brief Tale

This Christmas I flew out of town with my fiancé to see his family. Since we’d be out of town for several days, I checked a bag with the airline.

We arrived to our destination without any fuss and drove to see his family. As I went to my bag to retrieve some things before bed, I was greeted by a note from the TSA. The paper stated that my bag had been searched as a part of necessary “security” precautions.

Aside from looking like a five-year-old had packed my bag, everything seemed fine (I’m a careful packer—so the fact my folded clothes were left in wads was particularly irritating). Upon further inspection, however, I realized some things were missing from my luggage.

Those things were my underwear.

Now, in the “best” case scenario, either these items were taken out of my bag and accidentally put in someone else’s (that’s awkward) or the person who searched my bag decided fruit of the loom posed a security risk (I always thought those characters from the commercial looked shady). Worst case scenario, some TSA agent stole my underwear.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has wound up with some missing items at the hands of the TSA. In fact, some 29 TSA employees were fired for theft from Miami’s airport between 2002 and 2011. Over the same period, 27 agents were fired from JFK International. In total, a report on TSA theft obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that the TSA fired over 400 employees for theft between 2002 and 2011.

The agents tasked with “keeping travelers safe” have gotten their hands on more than passengers’ small trinkets. Former TSA officer Pythias Brown, for example, was convicted of stealing some very expensive items from passengers. He admitted to taking some $800,000 worth of cameras and other items from checked bags.

When discussing his crime, Brown said the TSA had “a culture” of theft. He stated it was easy for TSA employees to take advantage of passengers’ luggage because of lax oversight and tips from their fellow employees. “[Stealing from checked bags] became so easy, I got complacent,” Brown said in an interview.

Brown certainly isn’t the only one. One officer was arrested for stealing some $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket while another made off with a $15,000 watch. While the TSA is quick to point out that the number of thefts by TSA agents represents only a small proportion of their employees (which is true), it may be more commonplace than admitted. After all, it’s not exactly difficult to blame lost items on the general gross incompetence of airlines. The agency also states they have a “zero tolerance” policy for theft.

In spite of this zero tolerance policy, TSA agents have been arrested and convicted for stealing items including iPads, laptops, and a $40,000 piece of luggage.

The problem of theft seems simple enough to address. For example, how about that card put in my suitcase informing me of the “necessary procedure?” One could easily assign a number to each agent and print this number on the tickets placed in passenger suitcases. This would allow complaints to be easily traced to specific agents.

I’ve written elsewhere about problems with the TSA. Not only does the TSA violate your individual liberties every time you fly, it has also failed to catch a single terrorist since it was formed in 2001.

Put simply, the TSA faces poor incentives. The bureaucratic structure of the agency, without having to contend with the profit and loss mechanisms of for profit firms, means the agency must constantly appeal to the government for support.

As opposed to increasing revenues through improving its product and customer service, the TSA obtains more money and personnel by being worse at its job. Why? Poor performance, theft, and other problems means the TSA can say to the larger government, “we perform poorly because we need more resources. We have theft problems, we need more people to supervise, more training, and more resources.”

The result of these incentives is an ever-growing, dysfunctional organization. This agency not only fails to “keep you safe,” but might just steal your underwear.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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