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Airport security disarray

This week's departure of Kelly Hoggan as head of security for the embattled Transportation Security Administration is a nice start to a management shake-up, but it won't probably bring much comfort to travelers stuck in long lines in the nation's airports. No, that would have at least required Mr. Hoggan to take off his shoes, empty his pockets and submit to a full body scan — but only after two hours of anxiously milling about in a crowd of strangers.

How bad might it be in TSA security checkpoints this summer? At O'Hare International, where backups have been particularly pronounced this month, hundreds of passengers have missed their flights. Airlines had to ask passengers to arrive as much as three hours in advance. Getting past security often took more time than the actual flight.

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But O'Hare wasn't alone. It's a widespread problem in the U.S. as authorities have already promised more screeners and to pay crews overtime to help reduce the mess. But this is May. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Fridays in the summer generally are considered among the worst possible days of the year to book a commercial flight.

Worse, it's not clear that all those long lines are accomplishing very much. Tests have shown that weapons and explosives frequently go undetected by screeners. In one particularly damning investigation conducted last year, federal authorities were able to sneak such contraband past TSA security in 67 of 70 attempts — a failure rate that, incidentally, got the TSA's acting administrator reassigned at the time.

Given heightened concerns about the dangers of air travel in wake of the mysterious downing of the EgyptAir Flight 804 between Paris and Cairo last week, the timing could hardly be worse. It's bad enough that air travel and misery seem to go hand-in-hand just based on the crowds and the pay-extra-for-everything approach of airlines. Now it's testing human endurance while putting lives at risk — not usually a good formula for getting high marks in those customer satisfaction surveys.

Republicans in Congress have responded as they usually do whenever government comes up short — why not privatize? Rep. Darrell Issa claims private security screeners can do a much better job than those employed by government at a lower cost. But based on the experience of the 22 airports that have privatized under the TSA Partnership Program (most of them much smaller than O'Hare), both the cost benefit and the quality of the product are in dispute.

Some jobs government agencies do quite well, and some private contractors do well — or badly. The waste generated by Pentagon contracts (perhaps the ultimate example of costly privatization) could feed and house a small country. Yet agencies like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the National Transportation Safety Board chug right along doing good, if unheralded, work insuring bank accounts and investigating traffic accidents.

Here's one of the central issues — whether a contractor is hired or not, the core mission of keeping passengers safe still falls on the civil servants of the TSA. So if they aren't managing their own employees, TSA is managing contractors. And who is managing the TSA? That's the responsibility not only of the executive branch but of Congress exercising its oversight function.

TSA head Peter Neffenger has been summoned to Capitol Hill twice in recent weeks, including today when he pledged to throw more staff at the problem in Chicago. But his appearances have mainly served as an occasion for members of Congress to toss out a few cable news-worthy one-liners rather than to seek real solutions. At successful companies like UPS, managers are dispatched into the field when things get busy. Perhaps a little scanner time at TSA is just what members of Congress and senior advisers at the White House need to get some actual work done.

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