The Public Policy

Cut Those Airport Lines… And Catch Terrorists

Who says the TSA is the only alternative to terrorism in the skies?

By 5.28.10

Ever since the barbaric events of September 11, 2001, the air traveling public has become used to longer lines and ever more bothersome requirements at airport security. The Transport Security Administration (TSA) has become the butt of jokes -- TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around. Yet terrorists, from shoe bomber Richard Reid to Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad, have gotten through their lines and boarded planes, despite being known to the authorities. The TSA's repeated failure comes at an extremely high cost. We need a new approach to airport security.

According to transportation expert Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation, long airport lines cost the U.S. economy about $8 billion a year in wasted time. That means that in the nine years since 9/11, we have lost about $70 billion. Worse still, the lines have caused people to drive rather than fly. Overall, driving is more dangerous than flying, and research suggests the lines have led to an extra 1,200 deaths a year since 2001 -- so the death toll from people trying to avoid lines is now much higher than the carnage of 9/11! This is truly a case of "death by regulation." The Department of Transportation values loss of one life at just under $6 million, so the lives lost in car accidents just about double Poole's cost estimate.

Given its failures, does the TSA approach justify the $140 billion national investment? Clearly not. Yet there is no reason to think that the only alternative to the TSA approach is multiple terrorist attacks. There are three things that could be done now to reduce lines and increase the effectiveness of airport security.

First, a degree of competitive discipline must be introduced into the TSA. The agency has become a bloated bureaucracy, with all that entails. A 2007 study found that private screeners performed better than the nationalized industry that is TSA, but the TSA suppressed the results (and was heavily criticized by the Government Accountability Office for doing so). By giving airports a genuine ability to opt out of the TSA program and to use qualified private screeners instead, the TSA would be forced to get its act together.

Second, the risk model that assumes every passenger is equally capable of being a terrorist must be revised. This suggestion normally triggers an outcry that it will result in racial profiling. That is not the case. Racial profiling is just as crude and ineffective as equal risk assumption and should be avoided like the plague. Instead, as noted military strategist Edward Luttwak pointed out in the Wall Street Journal in January, "easily recognizable groups that not even the most ingenious terrorists could simulate" pose little risk. Examples of such groups include "touring senior citizens traveling together (a category that contains a good portion of all American, European and East Asian tourist traffic), airline flying personnel who come to the security gate as a crew, families complete with children." As Luttwak suggests, the critical question would be whether members of those groups "recognize each other as such."

Finally, a genuinely risk-based Registered Traveler Scheme should be adopted. The most recent attempt to create one failed because it relied on the equal risk assumption, with no genuine background checks involved that would exempt one from the security rigmarole. All it could offer was the ability to jump to the head of the line, which was not enough to lure enough people to purchase an expensive pass. Instead, the TSA should agree to undertake the sort of full background checks for registered travelers that would enable one to get clearance to work in an airport or obtain a DOD security clearance. That level of clearance should then allow registered travelers to bypass airport security almost entirely, and would be far harder to fool than the current system.

With these improvements in place, the TSA could be streamlined, airport lines would shrink dramatically, and terrorists would be more likely to be caught rather than hiding in the herd. The cost to the nation would decrease dramatically, more lives would be saved on the road, and, who knows, airlines might become profitable again. That's a small price to pay for upsetting one ponderous bureaucracy.

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About the Author

Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.