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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Flying versus driving (My TSA rant)

The recent attempted airline bombing has prompted a great deal of discussion in the press. Much of the coverage has highlighted the inadequacies of our ‘security apparatus’ and how the recent events should be a wake up call for improvement.

Do we expect the TSA to catch the bad guys every single time? Is this an achievable goal? ‘Improvements’ are spendy, and will make airline travel a serious hassle – way worse than it is now. As a nation we have already spent over 40 billion dollars improving our airline security, and I’d argue that we are only minimally safer today than we were in 2001.

Meanwhile our airlines are going out of business and plane travel has become a serious hassle. Today in an effort to cut costs the airlines seem to nickel and dime everything. Remember the good old days when you could put 2 big bags under the plane for free, the planes were half empty, and you always got a good, in-flight meal? And today, the worse part of travel is not the flying – it’s just getting through security.

I’d rather they not try to improve security because I’m certain that they will not get it right. Remember a few years ago when Ted Kennedy got tagged as a terrorist and held up in security. Or when the Feds tested the TSA checkers by putting explosives through the machines and the explosives were not detected? How about all the stories of people inadvertently carrying on pistols etc?

Millions of people travel and it is inevitable that TSA personnel will burn out fruitlessly checking everyone for weapons and bombs. Isn’t it ridiculous when they treat toddlers and grandmothers like hardened terrorists? I think we’d be far better off if the TSA did profile a bit and saved their serious searches for people who did not make eye contact etc.

Terrorist attacks are inevitable – just like the occasional plane crash. We will never be able to stop a determined terrorist. But even with the occasional crash and bombing, airline travel will still be far safer than other modes of travel. Since 2001 fewer and fewer opt to fly and more people are choosing to drive. How many extra people have died because they decided to drive rather than fly? Statistics show that car travel has higher rates of fatality.

I like to think of our airlines as a chicken coop, and the terrorists as foxes trying to get in and kill the chickens. A farmer will only keep chickens if it is worth his while in eggs and chicken meat. If he has to spend more on fences and traps keeping the foxes out than he gets in eggs and meat he will stop keeping chickens. Most farmers are realists and do not mind losing the occasional chicken. They do not spend a buck on new fencing to get back a dime’s worth of extra eggs.

Picture the airlines ten years from now if we do try to improve security further –tickets will likely cost twice what they do now. The hassle will be far greater, and every bag will cost you 50 bucks. Will it be worth it? Will we be any safer than we are now? Everything we do entails risk. You can get hit by a car crossing the road, so should you cross the road? As a nation we need to learn how to assess risks and their cost of mitigation. Do we need to make our airlines safer than our crosswalks?

Just some food for thought. Patrick


Mary Jane said...

I'm with you Patrick. I love to travel and am tired of the hassels. I don't think TSA is adequate so why spend the money there.

Zoya said...

I'm surprised that some people were surprised at the 'security failure', and I sure don't think any amount of money will fix it either. Perhaps we should spend the money on our train system? Or for solar power research?