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TSA: Killing Us an Hour at a Time

Tags Big GovernmentInterventionismPolitical Theory

05/29/2006Tim Kern

It's not just the Transportation Security Administration, of course. All sorts of government-mandated delays waste our time.

But since the TSA is charged with preventing another 9-11 situation, we Americans seem to tolerate it. The lives supposedly saved make it all worthwhile.

Note that, before 9-11, the first 75 years of US commercial air travel had no such incidents, and there was no TSA. The fact that we have not had any more such incidents since the TSA usurped the security function from the airports and airlines needs to be weighed against history, to see if there is any subjective value to their expensive antics.

Countless articles have chronicled how bad commercial air travel has become. Recently, The New York Times highlighted some of the TSA-inspired troubles. Jeff Bailey's May 21 story cites instances of crowding, bumping, and the airlines' re-utilization of aircraft, and points out that, even with fewer people being willing to fly shorter distances (and thus drive rather than fly), the airlines are approaching capacity load factors, and air travel has not only recovered from 9-11, but it has grown, and is expected to continue growing.

Growth is a good thing. Robert Browning to the contrary, more — not less — is more.

On the other hand, and quite aside from the angst caused by the TSA's regulations and delays, there are the costs. We know, or can calculate, many of the direct costs of the agency, from $400,000 office makeovers for the former director, to the costs of replacing the airport parking spaces the agency declared off-limits, to the costs of largely ineffective screening of the TSA hires. We add the costs of the bureaucracy itself: paperwork, salaries, office space, telephones, training. We can even estimate some of the costs of missed flights and additional parking fees incurred due to additional screening delays. We could throw in the costs of the additional highway deaths caused by travelers who elect to drive rather than fly, and the concomitant fuel costs, pollution, tolls, and the direct costs of automobile travel.

Don't stop there. If we want to add a few economic costs, we can then examine the demographics of air travelers, and we will find that they are not "average" people, in terms of their economic potential. The business travelers, especially, can safely be classified as "above-average contributors" to the economy. Thus, their delays (in concert with the general demographic of 9-11 victims) will be disproportionately felt in the economy.

Billions of dollars of costs incurred, little realized.

It's a lot worse than that, though. We're being murdered, slowly.

The TSA has increased travel time, due to its delays. Some estimates are as high as two hours per flight. We hear the holiday-travel warnings: "Be at the airport at least two hours before your flight!" The TSA didn't cause all the extra waste, but we can assign a lot of that waste to the new system. To be kind to our ruling class, let's call it just one extra hour of wasted time per flight. What's an hour, compared to 9-11?

We can live differently: $27

Let's do a little math.

There were 738 million enplanements (670 million domestic and 68 million international flights by US carriers) in the United States last year, and nearly 70% of those being leisure (voluntary, as opposed to business or bereavement) travel. If the TSA wastes just 1 hour per person per flight, that's 738 million hours. There are 8,766 hours in an average year (365 times 24, plus 6 for leap-year accrual). If a newborn is expected to live another 75 years, we may assume that an "average" airline passenger is 37.5 years old, and has 37.5 years left to live. We can also assume that a typical business traveler, being older than the average traveler, has 25 years left to live.

Turn the crank, and you can calculate the silent carnage.

Those 738 million hours lost are equivalent to the remaining lives of some 2,582 people! Each year, the TSA's one-hour delay, all by itself, kills the equivalent of over 80% of the 9-11 victims. Put another way, roughly every year and a half, the TSA "kills" more travelers than the four flights and all the ground victims of September 11, 2001.

Of course, you may disagree with my numbers. That's allowed; use your own. The argument is robust enough to withstand a lot of fiddling. Whichever realistic numbers you use, you will see that the death toll of the TSA is anything but negligible.

We can only hope that it's somehow worth it. If we go another 70 years without another "9-11-type" event, we may be able to make the argument that the TSA was as useful as … nothing. Except for the costs, of course.

Tim Kern teaches economics and business courses at Florida Southern College, and is a writer for the aviation press and industry. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.


Contact Tim Kern

Tim Kern is a writer and turnaround consultant in Anderson, Indiana. He taught economics at the high school, college, and postgraduate levels for over a decade. See his website.

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