ATW Editor's Blog

Weighing Security Costs


A new RAND report questions whether the US's complex and expensive aviation security screening procedures provide sufficient benefits to outweigh their costs.

Although the report does not directly ask whether the US Transportation Security Administration is worth the money, it's perhaps inevitable nearly 11 years after 9/11 that the mood has shifted to one that no longer automatically accepts security at any price.

The report points out that TSA spent approximately $6.5 billion to protect the aviation system in the fiscal year 2011 and costs borne by airlines and passengers for security measures—including time spent in screening queues—are estimated to add another $7.4 billion annually.

Judging by reader comments on our story posted at, there's a sense that the TSA's multi-layered and burdensome approach to security screening creates a lot of hassle and frustration, but doesn't always improve security.

I especially liked this comment:

"As a pilot in uniform, I remember going through TSA security screening and having to empty my "Brain Bag" for a detailed inspection of its contents. As I reloaded my bag, I asked the screener what the purpose of this exercise was.

With complete sincerity, this individual told me that it was necessary to ensure there was nothing in it which "would allow me to take control of an aircraft."

And yes, some of the antics you see at airport security do make you wonder what's really being achieved when we shed our shoes, clothes, toiletries, keys and dignity in full view of total strangers.

In addition, according to this NYTimes article, there seems to be no near-term solution for ending what is one of the most time-consuming and frustrating parts of the screening process - removal of shoes.

However, all of this still ignores the most important fact of all. Eleven years on and despite numerous attempts, there has not been another successful terrorist attempt to bring down a commercial airplane. And TSA has made many improvements in how it manages the difficult balance of properly screening people while ensuring reasonable, minimum hassle flow of passengers. At most US airports these days, the screening norm is a fairly organized and relatively short process. Trusted Traveler programs and the continued implementation of common sense measures are helping.

We can't and shouldn't go back to the pre-9/11 days, even if, as the RAND report points out, the US's annual commercial aviation security costs were a few million dollars rather than today's billions. And while the report laments the economic impact of screening hassle and public frustration on the commercial aviation business, there's no question that the economic fallout of a successful terrorist attack would be far worse and globally felt.

TSA still has work to do. But we are better off for it as an industry and as travelers.


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