Everyday Economics

The $100 Terrorist Insurance Plan

A better way to screen airline passengers.

If you’ve been on the Internet lately, you’ve probably run across Annie Jacobsen’s article in WomensWallStreet about her harrowing experience on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Los Angeles in June.

In brief, Jacobsen’s fellow passengers included 14 Middle Eastern men, most of whom boarded separately. Once the plane was in the air, according to Jacobsen, the men began gesturing to each other and congregating in large groups near the lavatories, which they took turns entering, in some cases with mysterious packages. One went into the bathroom with a full McDonald’s bag and emerged with it nearly empty. At one point, seven of the 14 men stood up in unison and all made for the lavatory simultaneously.

Jacobsen reports that she, several other passengers, and the flight attendants were alarmed, in some cases to the point of near panic. What could the men have been up to? In fact, they appear to have been Syrian musicians en route to an engagement in San Diego. But U.S. government agencies have issued recent warnings about teams of terrorists conducting dry runs to see if they can build bombs in flight from individually innocuous-seeming components that they carry on separately. Jacobsen asks: “Since the FBI [actually, the Transportation Security Administration] issued a warning to the airline industry to be wary of groups of five men on a plane who might be trying to build bombs in the bathroom, shouldn’t a group of 14 Middle Eastern men be screened before boarding a flight?” 

The government frowns on ethnic profiling for airline passengers, but Jacobsen and the 12 bazillion bloggers who have linked to her story think the feds and the airlines should throw political correctness to the winds and adopt a policy of full-fledged ethnic profiling. Meanwhile, roughly another 12 bazillion bloggers have warned that profiling Arab men will seriously undermine civil liberties.

But there are two points those on both sides seem to have missed. First, detaining 14 Middle Eastern men is neither more nor less an infringement of civil liberties than detaining 14 passengers chosen at random. Either way, 14 people have their liberty infringed.

Is it worth detaining 14 people (or an entire planeload of people) on every flight to see what’s in their McDonald’s bags or to question them closely about their reasons for traveling? I honestly don’t know. But this I’m sure of: If you’re going to detain 14 people, they should at least be the 14 people who are statistically most likely to be worth detaining.

Second, just because you detain particular people, it doesn’t follow that you’ve got to treat them unfairly. Being detained and questioned is a burden; it’s inconvenient and it’s demeaning. But there’s no reason that burden has to be borne entirely by the detainees. To spread the burden, all the airlines have to do is give each detainee a $100 bill for his trouble. If Northwest had had a policy like that on Annie Jacobsen’s flight, it would have paid out $1,400 to the 14 Syrians. Assuming there were another 200 passengers on that board, they could have covered that cost with a $7 hike in ticket prices.

I am guessing that Annie Jacobsen would have been thrilled to pay a $7 surcharge for the comfort of knowing that her Syrian co-passengers had been thoroughly vetted before takeoff. The Syrian musicians, in turn, would have picked up a hundred bucks apiece in exchange for, oh, 15 minutes or so of answering questions. How many musicians do you know who would turn down a gig at that hourly rate?

It’s possible, of course, that a majority of passengers would balk at paying an extra $5 or $7 or $10 for a little extra security. If so, then so be it—if the passengers place so little value on this particular form of insurance, then the airlines probably should provide less of it. But I’m guessing otherwise.

A cold-blooded economist might argue that the last thing we want to do is subsidize air travel for the very people who trigger our search instincts. Searches, after all, are expensive, and therefore often best avoided altogether. So, ideally we’d charge these people extra to discourage them from flying in the first place. Innocent or not, their very presence imposes costs on the system, and economic logic says they ought to bear those costs.

But to this there are two replies. First, who says we have to be cold-blooded all the time? When there’s a conflict, why can’t we sometimes be fair instead? Second of all, even if your own blood runs cold as ice, you’re never going to enact a policy that runs so counter to the general public’s sense of fairness. Paying people for their inconvenience is a good idea first because it is fair, and second because its very fairness makes it a plausible alternative to the current policy of pretending that old Midwestern women are as dangerous as young Middle Eastern men.

There’s precedent for this kind of targeted compensation. There was a time when airlines dealt with overbooking by bumping a few unfortunate people off the flight and letting them fend for themselves. Nowadays, bumpees receive free travel (and sometimes cash) worth hundreds of dollars. We all pay a little more for our tickets to cover that cost, but that’s OK—it means the burden of overbooking is shared by all travelers rather than concentrated on an unlucky few.

The present system of compensating bumpees has a second advantage—getting bumped is now largely voluntary. That, of course, is not an advantage we want to duplicate when it comes to searches and detentions. Detaining only volunteers would be silly, because it would catch all the wrong people. Detaining people randomly would be silly in exactly the same way, only a little less so—instead of catching all the wrong people, it catches mostly the wrong people. The right people to detain are the people we’re most scared of—the passengers that our best intelligence determines are most likely to be dangerous. Most of those passengers—almost all of them—are likely to be innocent. Let’s avoid unduly punishing them by paying them a fair price for the trouble we cause them.