Standing in security lines in airports is very common over the holidays, but the alleged attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas made Americans think even more about airport security than usual. Many politicians have reacted to the incident by arguing that airport security is not strict enough. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for airports to use full-body scanners more widely. Amsterdam's Schiphol airport has required all passengers boarding flights to the United States to walk through these scanners. Since the Christmas incident, the federal government has planned to spend about $1 billion on new full-body scanners and other security technology such as bomb detectors.
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Many Americans see waiting in lines, taking off their shoes, and other security measures as necessary evils. A December 28 Rasmussen poll found that 63 percent of Americans think security precautions put in place since September 11 are "not too much of a hassle." Forty-six percent of Americans think the current precautions are not strong enough. But some who study the costs and benefits of security policy disagree that the current regime works. "It's not clear to me that the $40 billion we've spent on screening passengers since September 11 is the wisest use of security resources," says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at think tank the Reason Foundation, and a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel.
The resources spent are large—and bigger than you might think. The money spent on airport security goes far beyond the actual operating budget of the Transportation Security Administration, the branch of the Department of Homeland Security created after September 11 to conduct security for U.S. transportation. The old adage goes that time is money, and by that standard, airport security is very expensive. Post-September 11 screening procedures have greatly increased the amount of time Americans must spend waiting at the airport because they now need a larger buffer time between arriving at the airport and getting on their flights.
According to a survey by the consulting service Resource Systems Group Inc., in the three years following September 11, the number of people arriving at an airport one hour before departure fell from around 20 percent to less than 10 percent, and the number arriving two to three hours in advance rose from around 20 percent to nearly 40 percent. Thomas Adler, one of the authors of the survey, says that evidence suggests that Americans still spend this much more time when flying. "It seems as though arrival patterns have stabilized at those new levels," he says.
That extra time spent at the airport has a cost. It means less time to spend at work, less time to spend with children, and less time for leisure. Another survey by the Resource Systems Group found that average airline passengers traveling on business would be willing to pay about $70 to reduce one hour of their travel time. For all other fliers, the survey found that the price of an hour is $31. Poole calculates that the annual cost to the country of the extra wait times from post-September 11 security procedures is about $8 billion. But he arrives at this number through a few assumptions that probably understate the real amount. Poole assumes that an hour of time is worth $50 for a business traveler and $15 for everyone else. He also assumes that the new security procedures added only a half-hour to passengers' travel time.
Greater use of full-body scanners instead of metal detectors would very likely increase wait times and thus raise those costs. Poole says that getting a passenger through a full-body scanner takes about 30 seconds longer than through a metal detector. "If TSA made [full-body scanners] mandatory as a replacement for metal detectors, this would be huge. There would be lines going out the buildings," says Poole.
A full account of the cost of security delays does not end here, however. There are also ripple effects from the delays that create new costs. For example, longer delays at the airport encouraged passengers to seek new modes of transportation for their trips, such as driving. Beefing up security generally makes people feel safer. But long security lines following September 11 had a more important effect on travelers' motivations to drive instead of fly. "It's hard for people to evaluate the additional benefit of security measures. But it's easy for people to say, 'I'm going to have to stand in line for an hour; I don't like that,' " says Garrick Blalock, a Cornell University economist, who coauthored a paper looking at the connection between airport security and driving fatalities. Because driving is so much more dangerous than flying, the thousands of more people who took to the roads rather than the skies after September 11 led to more car accidents. Blalock estimated that from September of 2001 to October of 2003, the enhanced airport security led to 2,300 road fatalities that otherwise would not have occurred. If security delays were to lengthen again, a similar driving fatality effect could happen, Blalock says, as more travelers choose to drive to avoid the increased inconveniences of flying.
But these costs have to be measured against the massive damage that would be done to the economy if another terrorist attack were to occur. The September 11 attacks, for example, cost New York City's economy $27 billion during the 15 months following the attacks alone, according to the New York City comptroller.
Poole says there are ways to reduce delays without compromising security. One idea is the creation of a registered travel program. Frequent fliers could undergo extensive background checks and, if they pass, would receive biometric cards that would allow them to pass through a quicker security line at the airport. Think of it as a fast-pass lane at toll road stations.
Travelers might be able to sign up for such a program soon. Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee for head of the TSA, said in a congressional hearing that he supports the idea of some kind of registered traveler program.