to multiple news stories, tests of TSA airport inspection by Department of Homeland Security
red team agents found that 95% of simulated bombs and weapons were missed by
the inspectors. That suggests that the considerable costs and hassles
imposed by TSA on passengers over the past thirteen years accomplished almost nothing.
The response by both government spokesmen and the media is that they just need to try harder, do
a better job. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that if, after thirteen
years, TSA is still unable to keep people from getting bombs and weapons onto
airplanes, perhaps it should give up.
does not mean taking no precautions at all. There are obvious precautions that
have nothing to do with inspections, such as reinforced doors to protect the
pilot area of an airplane and arming pilots. Terrorists willing to kill other
people are easier to find than terrorists willing to kill themselves, so it
makes sense to be sure that if the person who checked a bag doesn’t board, the
bag comes off. As a protection against hijackers, it might make sense to have
armed sky marshalls on many flights or to train and arm members of the flight
crew. That would cost considerably less money than the current system and
impose no cost in time and hassle on passengers.
precautions will not stop someone from blowing up an airplane with himself on
it, but, to judge by the results of the red team tests, neither do the current
precautions. That no such events have occurred is evidence that few or no
attempts are being made.
defender of the present system could still argue that even if it only stops one
or two incidents, it is worth doing, since human life is infinitely valuable.
There are two things wrong with that argument. The first is that human life is
not infinitely valuable, as shown by the choices humans make. All of us choose
to take some risks we could avoid, to drive to visit relatives when we could
stay home, to eat something short of the perfect diet, to see the doctor less
often than we would if avoiding death was something we regarded as infinitely
second thing wrong with the argument is that the present system also has a cost
in life, less visible than a terrorist attack but probably larger
than the cost of terrorist attacks prevented by the TSA. The more expensive, in money, time, and hassle
airline travel is, the more people choose to drive instead. Driving is a great
deal more dangerous per mile than flying, so more people driving means more
We cannot calculate the number of dead without knowing the size of the
shift from flying to driving produced by the TSA, but we can at least get some
feel for the order of magnitude. The mortality rate from driving is about one death per 100 million vehicle miles. The mortality rate from flying is very close
to zero—one estimate I found was .07 deaths per billion passenger miles. So,
roughly speaking, every hundred million passenger miles diverted from flying to
driving represents one more highway death.
February of 2015, passengers on commercial airlines flew 60 billion passenger
miles. Assuming the figure is the same for other months, that’s about 700
billion passenger miles a year. If we assume, I think conservatively, that one
percent of passenger miles are diverted from flying to driving by TSA hassles,
that comes to 7 billion passenger miles or about 70 deaths. Add that up for
the thirteen years the TSA has been in operation, and it has killed almost a thousand