In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, air travel has gone through a disruption whose effects are still being felt: continuing fear and anxiety on the part of passengers and airlines alike, the creation of a massive new federal bureaucracy of doubtful efficiency and efficacy, and airport hassles that were once unimaginable and now seemingly intractable, to name just a few. More than three years after the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, the best way to balance passenger safety, privacy, and convenience is far from settled.
In December 2004, reason invited Robert W. Poole Jr. and Jim
Harper to debate and discuss the best policy for secure air travel.
Poole is director of transportation studies at the Reason
Foundation and a former editor of this magazine. Harper is director
of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of
Privacilla.org, an online think tank dedicated to privacy
issues. Comments can be sent to letters@ reason.com.
Steps Toward Sensible Airline Security
Robert W. Poole Jr.
Against a comprehensive terrorist threat whose true dimensions are necessarily unknown, a free and open society has endless points of vulnerability. Attempting to "harden" all likely targets is a losing strategy--and a recipe for bankruptcy. But airplanes are very fragile, and if airliners were left unprotected and were thus subject to frequent destruction, a commercial airline industry would be unlikely to survive, with enormous negative consequences for mobility and our economy. Hence some degree of defense seems wise in the case of commercial aviation.
The single most effective thing that's been done in this regard is to retrofit much stronger cockpit doors, to deny terrorists access to pilots and controls should they manage to get on board. But the rest of aviation security policy is an inconsistent mix of overkill and underprotection. Mandating 100 percent inspection of checked bags for explosives, but not of carry-on bags, makes no sense. Neither does inspecting 100 percent of passengers for metal but not for explosives. Likewise, why inspect 100 percent of bags but not the cargo that flies alongside them?
Current security policy toward passengers and their bags operates as if every person and every bag were equally likely to pose a threat. The costs imposed--both wasted time from showing up an hour early and the hassles and indignities of screening--are very large. But the only alternative (short of doing nothing, which would make planes too attractive as targets) is to base airport security policy on known or expected risk, targeting inspection resources where they are most likely to make a difference.
One way to do this is to encourage a fraction of travelers to volunteer for pre-clearance. By getting the equivalent of a security clearance and an ID card that proves the person who shows up at the airport is the person who was cleared, such "registered travelers" and their bags could bypass most of today's intrusive screening. The other end of the risk continuum includes those about whom virtually nothing is known and those who, based on intelligence information, pose a possible risk. If those people can be identified, they can be subjected to screening somewhat more rigorous than what is today applied to all air travelers (e.g., the backscatter X-ray machines that see through clothing). With those policies in place for the low-risk and high-risk groups, those in the middle (most ordinary, nonfrequent fliers) could be screened in a manner similar to that in which we all were prior to 9/11.
We also need to fundamentally rethink the function of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Although the TSA is charged with protecting all forms of transportation, it devotes the vast majority of its staff and budget to airlines, presumably because Congress overreacted to 9/11. Yet cargo containers entering our ports and crossing our borders are also potential threat vectors, and railroads carrying hazardous chemicals are also vulnerable targets. So TSA ought to do a serious analysis of where America could get the most bang for our bucks in transportation security, and recommend changes to Congress accordingly. That would likely mean much less emphasis on airlines and somewhat more emphasis on other modes.
The other major problem with the TSA is its built-in conflict of interest. As created by Congress, TSA is both the security policy maker/regulator and a major provider of security screening services. That's as unwise as it was to put the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission in charge of both promoting and regulating nuclear power. The TSA should be divested of its service provision role as part of refocusing its mission on security policy for our entire transportation system.
Airport security should become the responsibility of each airport owner, as it is in Europe, under TSA oversight. Today the TSA screens bags and passengers, but the airport controls access to the tarmac, secures the airport perimeter, and carries out other security functions, resulting in a needlessly fragmented system. Airport security would be more coherent if it were no longer divided in this way. A single security staff, reporting to the airport director, could be cross-trained in a number of functions. This approach would make it easier to beef up staff in screening lanes during peak periods, with the extra people going off to do other security jobs when traffic is lighter instead of standing around. And as in Europe, airports should be free to hire certified private security firms to perform these services.
In short, airline security needs to be rethought from the ground up, along with the rest of transportation security. The kinds of risk-based policies that are partially in place for cargo need to be applied to airline passengers as well. That change would concentrate limited security resources where they will do the most good, reducing the hassle factor for a large majority of air travelers.
Kill the TSA, Don't Reform It
It is correct that airline security should be rethought from the ground up. But ground-up rethinking should really start at the ground. The TSA should be eliminated, not refocused.