The Cost of Airport Security Measures

By Hahn, Robert W. | Consumers' Research Magazine, July 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Cost of Airport Security Measures

Hahn, Robert W., Consumers' Research Magazine

After nearly a year of investigation, and the recovery of more than 95% of the wreckage, we still do not know the exact cause of the tragic crash of TWA flight 800. The Clinton Administration quickly reacted to the incident by immediately implementing several heightened security measures and creating a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. President Clinton asked this Commission to take a comprehensive look at the state of safety and security in aviation, and make recommendations for improvement. After just 45 days, the Commission issued an initial report with recommendations for ambitious changes to airport security. On February 12, the Commission issued a final report containing no less than 57 proposals aimed at improving aviation safety and security.

The initial recommendations alone will cost billions of dollars to implement and could cause extensive delays at the airports. President Clinton assures us that as a result of the initial security proposals, "not only will the American people feel safer, they will be safer." But is this really true? The White House has neither given a clear indication of the effectiveness of these measures in preventing terrorist acts, nor acknowledged the true cost of implementation.

Although the Commission states that "Americans should not have to choose between enhanced security and efficient and affordable air travel," there are difficult trade-offs in reducing risks. Each measure to improve safety and security can have an impact on the direct costs to travelers, delays, convenience, civil liberties, fatalities, and taxpayer costs.

Improving air safety and security is important, but we need to assess the cost and effectiveness of each measure before spending billions of taxpayers' and travelers' dollars on safety and security measures. Moreover, we need to confront the question of how safe is safe enough. The sad truth is that aviation fatalities cannot be eliminated unless we ban air travel, and that is simply too high a price to pay. So some level of risk must be deemed acceptable. This article provides a framework for thinking about these risk trade-offs by examining the costs and benefits of selected Commission recommendations.

White House Commission Recommendations. Recent airline disasters such as the TWA flight 800 crash sparked intense media coverage and public concern over the safety and security of the U.S. airline industry. A total of 380 people perished from these incidents in 1996, the highest number in ten years. It is important, however, not to make conclusions about the safety trends of aviation from year7to-year changes in accident rates. The fatal accident rate fluctuates greatly from year to year, but overall it has declined significantly over the past few decades. In fact, as the Commission notes, commercial aviation is the safest mode of transportation.

Nonetheless, the Commission has recommended 57 changes to commercial aviation. These proposals are far-reaching, covering four major areas of the aviation industry: aviation safety, air traffic control, airport security, and aviation disaster response. The discussion in this article will focus on the recommendations for enhancing security.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the report is the lack of a serious discussion of the costs and benefits of the recommendations. The Commission recommends that "cost alone should not be dispositive in deciding aviation safety and security rulemaking issues." The language is obscure but the message is clear: cost-benefit analysis should not play an important role in regulating air safety and security. The General Accounting Office (GAO) cautions that this proposal is a significant departure from the current rulemaking process and could lead to expensive policies that yield only small gains in safety.

Indeed, it would be difficult to justify the costs of extensive security measures given the relatively low risk of airline terrorism.

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