Safety That Kills


Who packed your bags?
Have they been out of your sight?
Did anyone give you a package to carry?

These questions have become standard at U.S. airports since July 1996, when TWA Flight 800 blew up near Long Island. Like me, you may wonder how effective they are at preventing terrorism, especially when they're asked in a perfunctory manner by an airline employee who clearly doesn't want to hear any answers other than "I did," "no," and "no." But whatever the utility of these questions in keeping bombs off airplanes, one thing is certain: They do nothing to reduce the risk of mechanical failure, which is what seems to have caused the crash of Flight 800.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still trying to figure out what sort of malfunction set off an explosion in the 747's center fuel tank, killing 230 people and scattering wreckage over five square miles of the Atlantic. But the FBI, which recently concluded its investigation, found "absolutely no evidence" that the crash was caused by a criminal act.

Unlike the FBI and the NTSB, President Clinton and Congress simply assumed that Flight 800 was downed by a terrorist bomb. Shortly after the explosion, Clinton ordered several changes in airport security procedures, including ID checks and queries about luggage. He appointed a commission headed by Vice President Al Gore to suggest more improvements. Within a month of the panel's initial report, most of its recommendations were implemented by Congress.

Since the event cited to justify all this anti-terrorist activity apparently had nothing to do with terrorism, the Clinton administration may have been a little hasty. But even so, isn't it better to err on the side of caution? That depends on how expensive the error is. This one, as the economist Robert W. Hahn has shown, carries a hefty price tag.

Hahn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, analyzed the cost of the new security measures last year in Regulation magazine. In addition to about $400 million in taxpayers' money allocated by Congress, he counted billions of dollars in costs imposed on airlines and passengers.

At the standard rates used by the Federal Aviation Administration to value time, delays resulting from the changes already implemented–travelers are supposed to arrive a half-hour earlier than they used to–represent something like $9 billion a year. New baggage screening devices and full matching of passengers to luggage will cost $4 billion or so. That figure does not include additional delays, which could amount to another $9 billion a year for luggage matching alone.

On the benefit side of the ledger, Hahn made the generous assumption that the security changes will prevent all sabotage of U.S. airliners–saving, on average, 37 lives a year. Considering only the costs of the measures already in place, each life saved would cost $200 million. By contrast, research indicates that air travelers put an implicit value of $5 million to $15 million on their own lives, while the FAA uses a value of $2.3 million per life saved to assess its regulations.

At this point in the discussion, advocates of expensive precautions usually abandon rational analysis and say that any cost is justified if it might save a life. But even under this laxest of standards, the anti-terrorism measures come up short. Because of delays and higher costs, some travelers who would have flown will instead choose to drive, a riskier mode of transportation. Hahn estimated this shift will result in 60 extra deaths a year. In other words, the security changes will probably lead to a net increase in fatalities.

We should also keep in mind the tradeoff between security and civil liberties. Already Americans are getting used to producing their "papers" upon request while traveling within their own country. The routine use of computerized profiling–which identifies possible terrorists based on personal data and suspicious behavior such as traveling light, paying for a ticket in cash, or visiting certain destinations–will subject many innocent people to interrogation and searches.

In short, the reaction to the explosion of Flight 800 nicely illustrates the way public policy is made in Washington: (1) Pick a problem–terrorism, hate crime, drug abuse, electronic indecency. (2) Transform it into a crisis, preferably with the help of a dramatic event. (3) Propose a solution. (4) Implement it quickly, without regard to unintended consequences. (5) Repeat.