I flew on a plane without going through security. It was amazing and no one died.

December 30, 2013

"I guess it would be nice, if I could see a full scan of your body." - George Michael, TSA. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Friday morning, I flew on an airplane, and it was amazing. And there's no reason Congress can't make every flight exactly that amazing, as well.

"Amazing" is not how you're supposed to feel about flying on airplanes. Flights are supposed to be day-long humiliations, preceded by a tedious and intrusive two-hour prologue of TSA scans and killing time at the gate, often followed by sundry delays and missed connections, and culminating in a physically and emotionally wrenching voyage featuring a screaming, virus-ridden infant, not-completely-unfrozen ravioli and "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." Business Insider's Henry Blodget is probably the master of the airplane-memoir-as-survivalist-tract genre, if you're into that kind of thing.

A lot of that could be solved by people just getting over it and developing a sense of perspective, but one part of the process really is horrible and unnecessary: the TSA scans. Let us count the indignities:

• The wait to get to the metal detector itself can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour. You have basically no idea how long.

• If you're silly enough to have brought along more than 3 ounces of toothpaste, shampoo, liquor, water or some other liquid on your flight, you're going to have to either toss it or start the whole process over again. If, say, a friend or family member gives you a bottle of bourbon that consequently has sentimental value, you're going to have to pay $29 or whatever to check your bag or else watch a TSA inspector pour out the memories before your very eyes.

• At the end of the security line wait, you have to take off your shoes, jacket and belt, empty your pockets, pull your laptop and/or liquids (3 ounces or less!) out of your carry-on bag, and arrange all those into separate bins (one for the laptop alone, of course!). I usually expedite this process while waiting in line -- taking off my belt and emptying my pockets and putting the contents into my carry-on bag, taking out my laptop and holding it separately, and unlacing my shoes, though on at least one occasion this has ended with me tripping on my shoelaces, with hijinks ensuing.

• Once you've managed all that, you get to go through a metal detector or, better yet, a body scanner -- for looking under your clothes. While the infamously invasive Rapiscan scanner was phased out over inadequate privacy protections, body scanners generally aren't going anywhere.

• Usually that's it, but sometimes you're randomly selected for a pat-down. And if they find something they don't like in your luggage or on your person, you could get even more than that. Hooray!

• Once that's all done and you've stumbled from the end of security to the nearest bench, you get to put your belt, shoes and jacket back on, refill your pockets, and put your laptop and liquids back in your carry-on. Now you just have to wait because you, like a responsible traveler, allotted a fair amount of time in case security took a while.

Many of the problems with air travel can be directly attributed to the TSA. The whole time-wasting, privacy-invading aspect of all of it is bad on its face, but there are indirect harms, as well. The whole reason you have to get to the airport 90 minutes to two hours before boarding is that you don't know how long it's going to take to get through security. If you knew it would take 10 minutes — or, better yet, zero minutes — you could get there 15 to 20 minutes before boarding and be fine.

The just-in-time arrival point is really key. On Friday, I had the pleasure of flying on Cape Air from Lebanon, N.H., to White Plains, N.Y. Cape Air is a commuter airline, and as this flight was on a plane with a total of eight passengers (plus the pilot), and disembarked outside the secure or "sterile" zone of the White Plains airport, it was exempt from TSA passenger screening requirements as laid out in §1544.101 of title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The flight was at 11 a.m., and boarded at 10:50, so I got to the airport around 10:30. I could have gotten there at 10:45, and it would've been totally fine. I just walked up to the airline counter, gave my name, got my ticket and walked into the aircraft. Because the plane was so small, you have less control over your carry-ons than you might usually, as the crew has to carefully place luggage so as to not put the plane off balance. But you also are spared baggage claim upon arrival, as the plane is unloaded for you right on the tarmac. It felt basically like riding Amtrak, or Bolt Bus. You just show up, show a ticket, and get on. No muss, no fuss.


Boarding Cape Air is a delight. (photo by Dylan Matthews)

Obviously, switching the airline industry over to exclusive use of sub-30 passenger planes would be financially untenable (though it's not just Cape Air that's profiting off the TSA's suckiness). And a TSA-free life in bigger planes would still have its disadvantages, like middle seats (every seat is a window/aisle seat on Cape Air's Cessnas) and baggage carousels. But think of the advantages. Imagine if catching an 11 a.m. flight out of D.C. was a matter of hopping on the Metro at Petworth at 10:20, getting off at Reagan/National Airport at 10:43, and boarding the plane at 10:50.

That world is possible. I've lived it, and it is amazing. All we have to do is abolish the TSA. Entirely. Just let people walk off the street and onto a plane.

Would this increase hijacking? Probably. But there's no reason to believe it would increase casualties from terrorist attacks overall.  That's because increasing airport security just leads terrorists to direct their assaults elsewhere.

The best literature review available on the efficacy of counterterrorism tactics found that, on average, adding metal detectors and security screenings at airports led to about 6.3 fewer airplane hijackings in the years examined (a hijinking-heavy period chronicled in Brendan Koerner's latest book, in case you're interested). But that was more than compensated for by an increase in "miscellaneous bombings, armed attacks, hostage taking, and events which included death or wounded individuals (as opposed to non-casualty incidents) in both the short and long run." In fact, metal detectors and security screenings at airports led to about 6.8 more of these substitute events. "When calculating the overall weighted mean effect size for all of the findings examining the effectiveness of metal detectors, the positive and harmful effects cancel each other out," the review's authors conclude.

Could that literature review be wrong? Sure. The evidence base on counterterrorism effectiveness is very thin because true experiments on it are hard to conduct. But you go to war with the data you have, and the data we have (including some from after that review came out) suggests that even the most rudimentary of security screenings have not saved any lives, all things considered. What they have done is waste countless hours and dollars, because we really needed a rock with which to scare away tigers.

Is eliminating airport security politically untenable? Maybe. Then again, consider what socioeconomic class flies a lot, and which one gives the most to political campaigns, and then notice that they're the same one. The first 2016 candidate who promised to end -- or at least dramatically loosen -- TSA inspections would probably have a veritable bevy of business travelers begging to give him/her their money. And there's nothing stopping airlines from instituting security procedures of their own devising if they want to court passengers who are still freaked out by the prospect of security-less flights. Worrywarts could fly Stripsearch Airways while the rest of us choose to opt out. Everyone wins.

Still not convinced? Let us then end with an economic parable. The company Timbuk2 makes messenger bags, and even makes some of them in San Francisco, meaning it's one of those durable consumer goods manufacturing firms that U.S. policymakers love so dearly. By my count, four of their products — three messenger bags and a backpack — are specially designed so as to allow you to put them through TSA screening without removing your laptop.

That's a really helpful service for Timbuk2 to provide. But think about what went into that. Think about the person on Timbuk2's staff who had to talk with the TSA about what, exactly, was and was not allowed in a TSA-compatible bag. Think about the product designers who had to redesign messenger bags and backpacks to fit TSA specs. Think about the effort that went into marketing that specific feature to frequent travelers. Think about what happens when TSA specs change, and all those people have to go through the whole song and dance again. Think about people buying that bag instead of something else they need or want just to get around the TSA regulations.

Think about all the waste that one stupid government policy can generate. And for what? To save lives? It doesn't. To prevent attacks? It doesn't. All it does is waste time and money. And messenger bag hijinks are just of the tip of that iceberg.

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