Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes — 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.
To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group’s report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It’s nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It’s not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year. But commentary around the news has been strongly negative. Regardless of the idea’s merit, it will almost certainly not happen. That’s the result of politics, not security: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of numerous outraged lawmakers, has already penned a letter to the agency saying that “TSA documents proposing to scrap critical passenger security screenings, without so much as a metal detector in place in some airports, would effectively clear the runway for potential terrorist attacks.” He continued, “It simply boggles the mind to even think that the TSA has plans like this on paper in the first place.”
We don’t know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency’s willingness to explore changes in the screening process.
There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don’t have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.
Over the years, I have written many essays critical of the TSA and airport security, in general. Most of it is security theater — measures that make us feel safer without improving security. For example, the liquids ban makes no sense as implemented, because there’s no penalty for repeatedly trying to evade the scanners. The full-body scanners are terrible at detecting the explosive material PETN if it is well concealed — which is their whole point.
There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The amateurs will be deterred or detected by even basic security measures. The professionals will figure out how to evade even the most stringent measures. I’ve repeatedly said that the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn’t worth it.
It’s always possible to increase security by adding more onerous — and expensive — procedures. If that were the only concern, we would all be strip-searched and prohibited from traveling with luggage. Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience. We spend $8 billion a year on the TSA, and we’d like to get the most security possible for that money.
This is exactly what that TSA working group was doing. CNN reported that the group specifically evaluated the costs and benefits of eliminating security at minor airports, saving $115 million a year with a “small (nonzero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.” That money could be used to bolster security at larger airports or to reduce threats totally removed from airports.
We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn’t effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument.
The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terrible judges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific “movie-plot threats” that we can bring to mind. That’s why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year — about a 9/11’s worth of deaths each month. And it’s why the idea of the TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. We can imagine the plot unfolding, only without Bruce Willis saving the day.
Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency’s decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let’s let them perform their analyses in peace.