Flight Plans: Convenience vs. Risk

An unpleasant question lingers in the background as various experts and journalists mull weaknesses in airport security. The topic is a fair one since it certainly seems plausible that tighter airport security might have prevented this week’s awful attacks.

The Wall Street Journal Wednesday ran an excellent, if rather terrifying, story on “lax” U.S. airport security. That piece cited a General Accounting Office study last year, which concluded that “the security of the air transport system remains at risk.” Example: In 1999, the Journal says, the Federal Aviation Administration tested airport security with federal agents at four major airports, and in that test federal agents were able to “sneak” through security doors on 46 occasions and board planes, “unchallenged,” 51 times.

The GAO report also pointed to the private security firms (hired by the airlines) who operate the X-ray machines and metal detectors at most airports: One reason for some security problems might be that these screening jobs are marked by low pay and high turnover (more than 200 percent annually at some big airports, including Boston’s Logan). The Associated Press has a story  this morning on past problems of the firm whose workers provide security at Logan, Dulles, and Newark International: The company “pleaded guilty last year to allowing more than 1,300 untrained employees at checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport from 1995 to 1998, including ‘dozens of criminals,’ according to the federal government’s sentencing memorandum,” the AP writes.

The question, then, is: Whose fault is it that security seems so inadequate? Well, ask yourself this: Which theme have you seen explored more prominently in stories and articles about air travel in the last two or three years? 1) Airport security is inadequate; or 2) it’s such a hassle to fly, why can’t airlines and airports make it easier for us to get where we’re going without wasting our time? Before Tuesday, had you heard more about that GAO report or about proposals for a customer service-focused Passenger Bill of Rights?

Now ask another question. Which one of those two themes has been most prominent in your thoughts on those occasions when you’ve flown in the last few years? How often have you stopped and said, sheesh, I can’t believe how easily I’m getting through security and onto this plane! I’d feel a lot better if I could see some evidence of extensive security checks! I’ll just go ahead and volunteer that the 20 or so times I’ve flown in the last couple of years, I’ve never thought those things. But several times I’ve seethed with (a now absurd-seeming) rage at being stuck on the tarmac or whatever, wondering why the world of flying couldn’t be arranged in such a way as to more conveniently accommodate my schedule. Like most people, I am all for maximum convenience.

In the Journal, the president of the Air Travelers Association (a group that represents air travelers, based in Washington) articulated the issue: “The public won’t accept heightened levels of security and all the inconvenience that entails unless they’re convinced there’s risk.”

We all know, of course, that there’s always risk involved in flying. On some level this weighs in our thinking as airline consumers. But a lot of other things weigh in our thinking, too. Such as the price we’re willing to pay for tickets. This is relevant to the current discussion because, among other reasons, it’s airlines (whose assorted competitive pressures were explored earlier) who now pay for those security firms. Today, as airports start to open again, that security will of course be much tighter. Flying will also be a much bigger hassle. If we want the level of security to remain high, it will also get more expensive.

Market forces—defined broadly; I don’t mean the stock market—shape the world around us. The ways in which this happens are not always obvious; no one literally sits down and performs a conscious calculation of convenience vs. risk. But it’s pretty obvious that up until Tuesday, a demand for convenience dominated this particular market. Convenience is a relatively easy thing to gauge in real time, and certainly its absence is something we all recognize immediately. Risk, on the other hand, is a hard thing to judge, weigh, evaluate. Sadly, it’s often possible to get a real handle on risk only in hindsight.