The recent US ban on laptops and tablets electronic devices from carry-on luggage from flights from 10 Middle Eastern Airports, and a more limited UK ban, have been widely condemned by the aviation press and the airline industry as arbitrary, ineffective and counterproductive. There is no factual basis for the airports selected, the UK list differs from the US, and the bans can be evaded by taking a connecting flight from elsewhere.
These issues raise a more fundamental question: Does the enormous cost and burden imposed upon the airlines and the traveling public by the all-encompassing TSA airport security regime provide any real benefit?
While it seems unimaginable today, air terminals were once popular places of entertainment where the public enjoyed watching airplanes. Observation decks were a source of airport revenue. Passengers and non-passengers had free access to boarding areas. Change began in the 1960s with the onset of airline hijackings to Cuba, and passage of the Hijacking Act of 1961. The first metal detectors were installed in 1969. By 1973 the FAA required all passengers to undergo metal detector screening and search of carry-on items. These measures changed little during the 1980s and 1990s.
Matters changed radically after 9/11. Congress reacted to the national tragedy by passing the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, creating the TSA and giving it full responsibility for and power to enforce airport security in the United States.
The TSA reacted to each perceived new threat with further restrictions and requirements. After the failed attempt of shoe bomber Richard Reid to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes in December, 2001, all passengers were required to remove their shoes for examination. A 2006 plot in Britain involving liquid explosives caused passengers to be forbidden to bring “liquids” (which TSA defined very broadly) on board, and later permitted liquids only in less than three ounce quantities. In 2009 “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab led to highly intrusive full body scanning imagery and physical pat-downs (which were later partially relaxed in response to public resistance).
The arbitrary nature of many TSA procedures, and the modifications made to them to mollify public outcry, suggests that they add little real value. In tests they regularly fail to detect simulated threats.
The costs of the current airport security program are substantial. The direct cost of TSA operations exceeds $7 billion annually, and researchers have concluded that the indirect costs to the public and the airlines are far greater. A 2012 RAND Corporation study concluded that security makes the aviation system more difficult to use and reduces its usefulness. “The fact that you have to get to the airport hours before your flight, stand in a very long line to be scanned and generally felt up—that’s a massive waste of time and productivity for everyone, for apparently no benefit at all, other than the security theater.”
Today the probability of another 9/11-type conspiracy is low. And 9/11 was an intelligence failure, not a security failure. None of the 9/11 hijackers should have reached an airport that day. There has not been a single attempt to hijack or damage a U.S. domestic airline flight in the years since 9/11. The 2001 and 2009 attempts on international flights were foiled by passengers who overcame and subdued the perpetrators. Defenders of the current system may argue that it deters such attempts, but there is scant evidence to support this.
Assuming some actual threat to domestic air travel, a better response might be to substitute an effective sky marshal program for the existing TSA infrastructure. The effectiveness of the current program has been questioned, but it only claims to cover 5% to 10% of airline flights, at an annual cost in excess of $700 million over and above the airport security program. These figures suggest that full coverage could be achieved for approximately the same cost as the airport program.
Having professionals trained and authorized to use deadly force on every flight would be a powerful deterrent, and an effective counter, to any actual threat. They could also better handle air rage incidents and unruly passengers in flight. And doing so could end the massive current collateral cost and burden upon air travelers and the airline industry.
Whether or not this is the best solution, it is time to reconsider the airport security regime adopted 15 years ago in response to 9/11.