The Cost of Security Theater

Airport Crop What is the total cost of airline delays in the US? Funny you should ask. A recent 82 page paper from The National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (miraculously acronymed as NEXTOR) estimated a total cost of $32.9B for 2007.

It is a wonderful paper. That it uses 2007 data tells you that it was a multi-year effort. It has ten primary authors and employed the “assistance” of six others mentioned on the title page. And they included in their calculation everything from the cost to the airlines of paying flight crew to wait around to the added cost to passengers who take earlier flights than they really need to account for the possibility of delays. I look forward to reading it through someday.

The $32.9B NEXTOR laboriously comes up with sounds pretty big, but in context it’s not quite as alarming as I think they mean it to be. It is about $109 per American per year, or about $39.40 per air passenger-flight. Now, of course, that’s not zero. If there was something easy we could do to eliminate that “waste” we would be better off.

Alas, there isn’t. Some flight delays are basically incurable, e.g. those caused by bad weather. NEXTOR argues (I gather from my skimming) that there are a lot of curable delays that are ultimately the fault of an over-taxed aviation infrastructure. But expanding that infrastructure could cost serious bucks, and in some cases, e.g. adding runways to certain airports, it is simply a no-go.

That is okay, because airline delays as defined by NEXTOR is not what got me to download the paper. What I wanted was a single datum: the dollar cost of an hour of wasted passenger time.

And there, on page 12 I found what I wanted: $37.60. Disappointingly, the only explanation of where is comes from is a reference to a 2003 Department of Transportation paper with a broken link.

To be honest, at first I thought the number sounded a little high. As a wage rate it would work out to about $75K/year. But then again, the average airline passenger is probably a little better paid than the average American. And the number comes from a government agency. Besides, who wouldn’t pay $37.60 to have their trip shortened by an hour?

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I wanted to know how to price wasted passenger time so I could calculate the cost of the TSA’s security theater preformed to packed houses before every flight.

To do this, I next need to estimate how much time standing in line to take off your shoes and be electronically strip searched takes per flight. In other words, how long before the plane leaves do I have to get to the airport? Surprisingly, the TSA, which has instructions on its site on how to pack so that your bags can be searched more easily, and suggestions about avoiding body-piercings, tells us to ask our airline how long we need.

American Airlines says to arrive an hour before a domestic flight without bags, 90 minutes if you are checking bags, and two hours for an international flight. How much of that has to do with the security lines is not specified.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I am going to use 30 minutes for a domestic flight and an hour for an international one as the extra security theater time. I know that most of the time the lines are not nearly that long, but I think most of us get to the airport that much earlier just in case. Time spent waiting at the gate is just as wasted, although admittedly more pleasant, than time spent on line.

There were 679 million domestic air passengers and 156 million international ones in 2007. So the total cost in wasted time was $18.6B.

But we also pay the TSA guys to waste our time. This is, in principle, covered by a “passenger security fee,” i.e. an extra tax on airline tickets. The TSA has suggested that the fee should be $5.50 “per enplanement” to cover the full cost of what they do for us. That works out to another $4.6B based on 2007 passenger numbers, for a total cost of $23.2B per year.

$23.2B is less than the $32.9B cost of flight delays, but, unlike the flight delays, the cost of pretending to fight terrorism is completely avoidable. As I have said before, the TSA shtick is something most people tolerate on the erroneous assumption that it is important to others. In fact, I do not think that very many air passengers, the people it is meant to protect, actually like it. If given the choice, would you take your next trip under the current regime or on a designated low-security (circa 1980) airline?

I think that any thoughtful debate on the topic would wind up with a consensus that security theater is a waste. Until now, the problem with starting that debate has been that if the argument against the TSA is that it is just such a drag, the anti-theater types seem callous and unserious. On the other hand, armed with a large dollar cost that could be avoided in these times of austerity, the argument sounds sagely responsible. So get to it.

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