TSA Security Fee: Another Federal Revenue Grab

As part of its budget deficit reduction plan, the White House has proposed raising the “security fee” levied on each segment of a trip traveled by air from $2.50 to $5.00. Since many, if not most, trips now entail two segments (changing planes once) per trip, that means $10 per one-way ticket and $20 per round trip ticke. The argument is that airline users should pay the cost of security services provided to keep them safe. Intellectually, that’s a good argument and one Reason Foundation supports.

The problem with this particular fee is that the evidence that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is effective in securing the skies is sketchy at best. A lot of this money is simply squandered searching the millions of travelers each year who are no threat at all. We are, in essence, throwing money into a system that has no effective way of discerning a credible threat. (Another way of looking at this problem is that the airline security procedures under the TSA’s current approach may be an excellent example of a wasteful, ineffective government program presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged to shut down on the campaign trail.)

As the New York Times (Sep. 26, 2011) recently noted:

“That oversight has mostly e from the Government Accountability Office, which has issued a string of reports critical of the Transportation Security Administration’s tendency to purchase equipment without first evaluating its effectiveness or conducting a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

“Most notably, machines that puffed air on travelers to check for explosives had to be scrapped because they broke down frequently. The G.A.O. has also expressed concerns about the use of baggage scanning machines that did not meet current explosives detection standards and the more than $750 million spent on about 3,000 behavioral detection officers at airports without enough evidence that the program’s results justified its cost.”

Indeed, this point came home to me recently when I was subjected to a full-body scan on a recent commercial flight on Reason Foundation business out of my home city of Dayton, Ohio: Despite having a passport for more than 30 years, flying hundreds of thousands of miles each year on business, a decades long record of steady employment, and a 23 year long marriage, the TSA screening process has no way of eliminating me as a terrorist. So, they default into treating everyone as if he or she is a terrorist.

Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole told the New York Times that airline security measures ae plagued with “wasteful T.S.A. spending” (Sept. 26, 2011). The saving grace might be a real user fee (if the revenues were not used to reduce the deficit and preserve wasteful spending elsewhere) that changes the incentives within the system:

“If the whole program costs were coming out of the hides of airlines and their passengers, I think we would see a lot more focus on why does this cost so much and where is the bang for the buck,” Mr. Poole said.