The arrival of the holiday season in the U.S. marks the start of the busiest travel period of the year. For millions of Americans, it’s a time of misery—hours spent waiting out weather delays and missed connections in crumbling domestic airport terminals with oppressive overhead lighting and bad food. But what makes the experience of air travel truly abominable is the government agency ostensibly designed to ease anxieties about getting on planes: the Transportation Security Administration. Far from making travel safer, the U.S.’s approach to airport security is putting the lives of even more people at risk.
The TSA was created to replace the patchwork of private security companies that handled airport security in the pre-9/11 era. Its budget quickly ballooned: Since 2002 the number of TSA agents has risen from 16,000 to more than 50,000. Still, to a traumatized public, any amount of overreaction in the name of preventing another terrorist attack seemed acceptable.
More than a decade later, it’s time to move on. For one thing, the attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. Since 2000 the chance that the death of a U.S. resident resulted from a terrorist attack was 1 in 3.5 million, according to John Mueller and Mark Stewart of Ohio State and the University of Newcastle, respectively. Out of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen. In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 annual deaths worldwide, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq—the same number, notes Mueller, that occur in bathtubs in the U.S. each year.
Yet the TSA still commands a budget of nearly $8 billion—leaving the agency with too many officers and not enough to do. The TSA’s “Top Good Catches of 2011,” reported on its blog, did include 1,200 firearms and—their top find—a single batch of C4 explosives (though that payload was discovered only on the return flight). A longer list of the TSA’s confiscations would include a G.I. Joe action doll’s 4-inch plastic rifle (“it’s a replica”) and a light saber toy. For all the face cream, breast milk, and live fish that vigilant screeners collected in airport security lines last year, the TSA didn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airline in the U.S.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As long as passengers aren’t flying to the U.S., Canada allows them to keep their shoes on and their iPads in their bags (where they are less prone to being nicked). The U.K. will allow you to carry small decorative snow globes onto a flight, deeming tolerable the risk of onboard snowpocalypse. And those fancy new backscatter scanners where you stand with your legs apart and stick your thumbs on the top of your head as agents get to see what you would look like if you were naked and very furry? They’ve been banned in the European Union.
In the U.S., kids and old people can now keep their shoes on through security, while the backscatter scanners—which have been linked to cancer—are being moved out of major airports. These are small signs of progress, but they’re far from adequate. According to an estimate by the New York Times, the 9/11 attacks caused $55 billion in “toll and physical damage” to the U.S., while the economic impact was $123 billion. Costs related to increased homeland security and counterterrorism spending, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaled $3,105 billion. Mueller and Stewart estimate that government spending on homeland security over the 2002-2011 period accounted for around $580 billion of that total.
As Rand Corp. President Emeritus James Thomson argues, most of that expenditure was implemented “with little or no evaluation.” In 2010 the National Academy of Science reported the lack of “any Department of Homeland Security risk analysis capabilities and methods that are yet adequate for supporting decision making.” DHS (and the TSA in particular) is spending huge bundles of large denomination bills completely blind.
All this spending on airline security is worse than wasteful. Following the official rules while still attempting to show decency toward passengers all but forces TSA employees to delay, embarrass, and inconvenience many thousands every day. Faced with the prospect of such unpleasantries this holiday season, countless Americans will skip the flight to grandma’s house and drive instead.
But compare the dangers of air travel with those of driving. To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to analysis published in the American Scientist. Researchers at Cornell University estimate that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day. The Cornell researchers also suggest that enhanced domestic baggage screening reduced passenger volume by about 5 percent in the five years after 9/11, and the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid security hassles over that period resulted in more than 100 road fatalities.
That’s not to say TSA employees bear responsibility for making the roads more dangerous—they’re just following incentives that reward slavish attention to rules over common sense. (To its credit, the agency is trying to ease the security process, especially for frequent travelers through the PreCheck program.) Don’t blame Homeland Security officials, either. They’re merely avoiding the far greater backlash associated with doing nothing rather than something—even if nothing is probably the right course in a lot of cases. Instead, the blame lies with politicians, the media, and yes, the traveling public, who will skewer officials over a single fatal plane incident while ignoring car crashes, gun homicides, and even bathtub accidents that kill far more than terrorism does.
The TSA should be encouraged in its efforts to expand lower-hassle approaches to airport security that don’t dissuade people from using one of the very safest ways to travel. Washington should ask itself why it values the life of an airplane passenger so much more than a bus or train passenger (or the daredevil bath-taker) in terms of the time-wasting, expense, and invasions of privacy it’s willing to tolerate to protect them from harm.
For Americans reading this while stuck in an interminable airport security line, now might be a good moment to fire off an e-mail to your representative, senator, or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and let them know how you feel. Or if you decided to drive because flying was too much hassle, and you pass an accident on the road, get your passenger to text them: “That could have been us.” Perhaps they’ll get the message this time.
Photographs by Alamy; Getty Images (5)