More Airline Insecurity

The bill pushed by House Republicans would create a Transportation Security Administration within the Transportation Department responsible for security of all modes of transportation. It increases the number of air marshals on flights, takes steps to strengthen cockpit doors, requires law enforcement personnel at each screening location in airports, and imposes a passenger fee of up to $2.50 per flight to pay for new security measures.

The Senate bill and legislation introduced by House Democrats contain many of the same provisions. But the Senate bill would make all 28,000 airport screeners federal workers, allowing smaller airports to use local or state law enforcement officials.

If our only choice is one of these two versions, then my vote is for the House version, but what’s frustrating about this debate (as in most public policy debates) is the “false-choice” aspect of it. It is based on a set of flawed assumptions, e.g.:

  • That what happened on September 11 was a failure of airport security procedures
  • That improving those procedures will prevent future such events
  • That the legislation being contemplated will actually have the effect of improving those procedures
  • That no price is too high to pay to prevent airline hijacking attempts

The story notes that a price of $2.50 will be added to each ticket to pay for this improved security. This is indeed a trivial amount, and if it were the only cost, and it really increased our safety, I’d cheerfully pay ten times the amount. But what is always ignored in these debates is the real cost (perhaps because politicians and bureaucrats, who are not paid by the hour, don’t understand that time really is money).

Has anyone ever done a cost/benefit analysis of these bureaucratic butt-covering edicts? Has anyone ever calculated the undoubtedly tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that confiscating toenail clippers from business travelers costs in terms of lost time and productivity? Has anyone even attempted to estimate the lost wealth to the economy because of deals that don’t get done because someone finds flying not too frightening, but simply too harrying and inconvenient?

As I’ve pointed out in a previous editorial, I don’t worry much about hijackings any more. The hijackers themselves have put a permanent end to that by shifting the paradigm of both passengers and crew–we simply will never tolerate it again. I am now more worried about bombs on board, and at least in the case of checked luggage, these can be checked for with very little inconvenience to the passengers, and even with carry-on, a bomb is much easier to detect, and can be screened without wasting time on the minutiae of personal grooming tools, or even Swiss Army knives (I had to leave mine in Puerto Rico last month because of the continuing brainlessness of the current security approach).

Some say that if people are expected to have to defend themselves, they won’t fly. My bet is that what will keep people from flying is ineffective and time-wasting security procedures, that only give us the illusion that we don’t have to take any personal responsibility for ourselves. As Ann Coulter once said, the flawed thinking is apparently that, the more annoying the procedures, the safer the plane. I know that I’ll be flying less, and not because I’m afraid, but because I value my time.

My preferred anti-hijacking solution remains to allow qualified people to carry–cockpit crew, active/retired military, law enforcement personnel, even people with valid CCW. Let’s make the hijackers have to guess who’s carrying and who’s not and how many are, and my bet is that there won’t even be any more attempts, let alone successes. But that remains a politically incorrect solution (though perhaps becoming less so, as we see gun sales skyrocketing in the wake of the attacks).