The cost of Government-run airport security

In “TSA: Taxes Spent Absurdly”, Becky Akers asks “How do you turn an industry that costs $700 million annually into one that eats $6 billion?” The answer turns out to be “Nationalize it, as Congress did airport screening after Sept. 11, 2001.” She goes on to note that “The TSA’s nearly 50,000 screeners have delayed, frustrated and harassed passengers at airport checkpoints from Maine to Hawaii. What they haven’t done after eight years and $48 billion is catch a single terrorist.”

Akers is certainly understating the cost of aviation security imposed after 9/11. At our little airport there is a state trooper employed to fingerprint student pilots. An average Massachusetts State Trooper, including pension, is paid over $200,000 per year. A couple of airport employees help with background checks, security education, and issuing badges. Until a student or renter gets a badge, which takes at least four weeks, the customer must be escorted by a flight school employee at a cost of perhaps $25 per hour. The customer who does a thorough pre-flight inspection of an airplane may take all of the profit out of the rental.

Then the airport management decided that student pilots shouldn’t be allowed to keep their badges at home. What if they abandoned flight training and never returned to the airport. The flight school would have to pay an employee to file away each badge after a student’s flight and then hand it back when the student next showed up at the airport.

[A little background on comparative risk management: The four-seat planes that the students are renting can carry approximately 400 lbs. plus the pilot and fuel. A terrorist with a tractor-trailer, by contrast, can carry approximately 100,000 lbs. of whatever weapons or explosives he chooses. Aviation is subject to new regulations every year while there are virtually no regulations on purchasing or renting a truck and loading it up in the privacy of your own home, field, or warehouse.]

On Sunday we had to cancel a sightseeing tour that we had scheduled. The Boston Red Sox moved their game from 1:35 to 12 noon, which meant that we could not get anywhere near downtown Boston at 11:15 am, due to the “Temporary” Flight Restriction imposed after September 11th that prevents aircraft from flying within 3 nautical miles of a professional or NCAA Division I sports stadium. This is on the theory that a determined terrorist won’t mind engaging in destruction and murder from the air, but will carefully check the NOTAMs to make sure he isn’t violating  a regulation. Unlike with the Presidential TFRs there are no F-16s or surface-to-air missiles to protect spectactors at such an event and a terrorist in a jet would travel through the 3 nautical miles in about 30 seconds. The FAA does not broadcast these TFRs. Nor does the FAA identify professional sports or NCAA Division I stadiums on its charts. To be legal, a pilot flying at lower altitudes would have to figure out where stadiums are located and check the schedules for every college and professional sports team that might be playing along his or her route of flight. [Note that the professional sports teams owners had been trying to get a restriction for many years in order to obtain a monopoly on in-stadium advertising and eliminate competition from airplanes towing banners. After September 11 they were able to get it for “security”.]

When a college or professional team wants to fly its own helicopter in or out of a stadium, they have to research the process for obtaining a waiver. They have to draft the waiver, which requires specialized aviation knowledge, after discussions with a pilot. The waiver application goes to the TSA to be reviewed by a taxpayer-funded employee.

If something isn’t done exactly right, either the FAA or TSA will have to prosecute a pilot for violating the policy against banner towers that had to be drafted instead as a security policy. Now at least five Americans are occupied in the dispute: (a) judge, (b) bureaucrat, (c) lawyer for government, (d) lawyer for pilot, (e) pilot. Instead of developing solar power systems or more efficient ways to make tires, five Americans are arguing about whether a pilot should have known that Wake Forest was having a football game and where Wake Forest’s stadium was.

I recognize that this posting relates only to a tiny slice of the American economy, but it is a slice that I have direct experience with. I imagine the rest of the economy is suffering from similar new regulatory burdens. The government adds regulations but almost never removes any, so the possible ways to violate a regulation grow every year. (This was a point made in the reviled book Bell Curve; in the old days it was pretty obvious what was a crime and easy to avoid running afoul of the law even if your IQ was 80; nowadays the legal system is so complex and prosecution so uncertain (marijuana and crack cocaine are equally illegal but somehow people are supposed to know that possession of marijuana is less likely to be prosecuted) that dumber-than-average people are screwed.)

One theory for how Americans can survive competition with Chinese workers who are better educated and get paid less is that the U.S. somehow has a more favorable environment for business and people have more freedom to do whatever it is that they need to do. As government keeps adding regulations, many of them in the name of security, one wonders if our environment is indeed more favorable.

5 thoughts on “The cost of Government-run airport security

  1. But, by all means, let’s have the government run national healthcare. I’m sure it will be better than anything done privately.

  2. The airplanes with banners are still flying directly over the UT stadium here in Austin, TX during games. Any thoughts on how that’s possible?

  3. Bill: There is a process for obtaining a waiver, but it is primarily designed for the team itself. It is possible that the team decided that banner tow planes were fun and/or takes a cut of the revenue and applied for a waiver.

  4. > An average Massachusetts State Trooper, including pension, is paid over $200,000 per year.

    This really seems like an unsubstantiated claim. Among several articles in the Globe in 2007 decrying the high rate of pay for Mass Troopers, this artcle:, lists only 4 of 2,338 state police making as much as $200,000 a year. That’s 0.17 percent of state troopers, hardly representative of the average. I’m sure that several troopers recieved rasies in the two years since that report, but I find it hard to believe that well more than half of the state police had increased pay to the extent that the average became $200,000.

    Additionally, state troopers that do make above the average are typically adding to their income through extra work.

    Your qulaification of the argument to include pention benifits is even more questionable. Pensions are based on time working within the agency, and vary wildly based on the age and experience of the agent.

    I agree that many state police in Mass are paid more than deserved, and certianly more than the national average, and that should be addressed by the Commonwealth. However, you are alleging that the trooper that takes fingerprints in your local airport is among a very small group, which isn’t likely.

    If you want to complain about government waste, then by all means do so. But don’t try to support your argument with unsubstantiated numbers. There’s plenty of real waste going on in the Commonwealth and beyond.

  5. Tyson: With your kind of pension accounting, i.e., writing the cost of the future promise down to $0, you would have a very bright future in politics, according to the author of While America Aged. It is, of course, true that not all state police make even $140,000 per year. A Massachusetts state trooper can retire after 25 years of service at 75 percent of his last year’s salary, which may include overtime and therefore be closer to 100 percent of his base salary. If the trooper starts work with a bachelor’s degree at age 22, that means he is retiring at age 47. Should he live to age 97, he will receive a pension for 50 years, receiving twice as much cash as he did during his working life. I think that the state is also on the hook for his health care as a retiree.

    How much is the pension benefit worth? If you assume investment returns of 1000 percent per year, hardly anything. If you take the 10-year Treasury rates that have recently prevailed, i.e., 2 to 4 percent, financing a $140,000 per year pension can get quite expensive.

    If interest rates remain where they are and/or the U.S. economy continues to stumble and/or health care gets more expensive and/or a brilliant scientist comes up with a way to make everyone live 10 years longer, the cost to Massachusetts taxpayers will be far more than the $200,000 per year that I cited.

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