Would You Be Afraid to Fly If the TSA Were Abolished?

I wouldn't. Here's why.



Complaints about long lines at security checkpoints in U.S. airports are crescendoing. More folks are missing their flights even though they show up at the airports hours in advance. "I don't know what that was," responded TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger when told about the major such snafu at Chicago's O'Hare Airport yesterday. Let's abolish the Transportation Security Administration.

But wouldn't that put lots of people in danger of terrorist attacks? First, let's agree that after the September 11, 2001 atrocities American air passengers will never again permit a commercial flight to be hijacked. So, no need for a TSA to protect against hijacking.

But what about bombs? Doesn't the TSA protect us against terrorist bomb attacks? First, consider that last year TSA security screeners missed 95 percent of weapons and explosives in security tests. According to the TSA, its screeners found 2,653 firearms in carry-on baggage last year, and lots and lots of knives. Keep in mind that these weapons were in general not hidden by essentially innocent (if forgetful) travelers. So far, I can find no reports that the TSA has caught a single terrorist.

Still, of course, terrorists might well be able to blow up a plane. There have nearly 90 airline bombings/attempts since 1933 (an average of  about 1 per year).  But consider that in 2014, there were globally over 37 million airline flights (more than 100,000 per day). Total passenger numbers for 2016 are projected to be 3.6 billion. Assume terrorists take out one fully-loaded 747 per year (416 passengers)—your risk of dying from a bombing attack would be about 1 in 8.7 million passengers traveling annually or 1 flight in 37 million annually. For perspective, your annual risk of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 4.5 million and car accidents 1 in 17,000.

In addition, the increased costs and delays due to airport security encourages people to switch from short-haul flights to driving with the result that about 500 people more year die from auto accidents than would otherwise have done.

Airlines and airports realizing the damage that bombings would do to their bottom lines, would, I suspect, devise and adopt truly effective luggage screening programs. Perhaps some combination of computed tomography scans evaluated by artificial intelligence and demographic information that airlines already know about their passengers when they buy their tickets (think updated Pre-Check). Even so, there is no 100 percent guarantee that all attempts of terrorism aimed at air travel will be caught and prevented. 

Abolishing the TSA would also eliminate that agency's ongoing violation of our Fourth Amendment rights.

Finally, if we can't get rid of the TSA, let's at least privatize it, as cogently argued by my Reason Foundation colleagues.

Note: I suspect that my next trip though airport security might be a tad more interesting than usual given the series of internet searches that I conducted to report this article.