Equality at the Airport

Are shorter lines for special fliers fair?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

In the War on Terror, waiting on long lines for security checks at airports is the major war effort imposed on civilians. Though it beats trying to pry martyrdom-crazed al-Qaida fanatics out of caves, trying to get yourself and your luggage from an airport entrance into an actual airplane can be a pretty hellish experience these days. What the demands of security have done since Sept. 11 to make you miserable while heading to the plane nicely complements what the airlines have done in recent years to make you miserable when you’re on board.

Unless, of course, you’re traveling first-class, or you’re a plutonium-level member of the airline’s frequent-flier program. In that case your way is eased by, among other perks, special lines—not just at the check-in counter run by the airlines, but at the security checkpoints run by the government. As they inch down endless corridors toward a row of metal detectors shimmering on the distant horizon, juggling possessions and documents according to mystifying rules (laptops must be out of the suitcase … cell phones and PalmPilots must be in the suitcase …), the flying masses have both the time and the inclination to wonder: Is this fair?

Special check-in lines are unfair only in the sense that life itself is unfair. The airlines are private companies. They offer better service for a higher price, or for high-volume purchasers, and those who are willing and able to pay more get more. Buying an airplane ticket probably rubs your nose in your financial inferiority—or allows you to wallow in your financial superiority—more forcefully than any other common economic transaction. Probably more than is absolutely necessary. The culture of relentless strategizing, heart-pounding stress, and crushed hopes that has grown up around upgrade certificates is a parody of capitalism’s underside. Nevertheless, it’s all basically the free market at work.

Special lines to go through airport security are a different matter. It’s not just that airport security, as of last month, is run by the federal government. The rules, and thus the inconvenience, have always been mandated by the federal government. And they have always imposed a burden on individuals to benefit the larger society. The new arrangement, and increased burden, just puts the question in sharper perspective. The question is whether money should be able to buy your way out of a social obligation. Or, more grandly, democracy celebrates equality. Capitalism generates inequality. So what do we do, in a democratic-capitalist society, when those forces conflict?

There are two general solutions to this puzzle, neither completely satisfactory. One is: Let capitalism flourish but keep it in its own “sphere” by limiting what money can buy. ( Spheres of Justice is the title of a book by philosopher Michael Walzer spelling all this out. Another respected book making this case is The End of Equality, by Slate’s own Mickey Kaus.) If money determines who gets a bigger seat on an airplane, that’s OK. But if money determines who fights and dies to protect the country—as it did during the Civil War, when you could buy your way out of the draft by paying someone to take your place—that’s not OK. Airline passengers are being drafted, in a small way, in the war on terrorism. Undergoing the hassle is a duty that should be shared as equally as possible, not one you should be able to buy your way out of.

The trouble with this solution is that it bumps up against the powerful moral logic of capitalism: If two people make a deal voluntarily, they both presumably are better off. When you forbid the rich guy to buy something (like a substitute for the draft), you also are forbidding the poor guy to sell something—even though his willingness to sell it proves that he’d rather have the money. So why is that a favor to him? Suppose—to use the classic dorm-room bull-session trump card—he needs the cash to pay for a lifesaving operation on his baby daughter. Yes, of course, he shouldn’t have to risk death to get a needed operation for his child. But by closing off one way he can pay for the operation, you’re not helping him to get that operation any other way.

The trouble with this second solution is that it “proves too much,” in the delightful lawyers’ phrase. Should you be allowed to sell an arm or a leg? Sell yourself into slavery? Buy a senator’s vote? (I mean buy it directly, rather than through the various indirect methods of our current system.) Should a rich crook or murderer be allowed to hire a substitute for his prison term—or even his execution? Except for nutty Ayn Randists with dollar-sign necklaces, we all have our limits.

In the less melodramatic case of airport security lines, the government’s solution involves the splendidly Jesuitical distinction between “lines” and “lanes.” The government controls the security lanes themselves, but the airlines control the lines leading up to them. Entry into the lanes is strictly first-come, first-served, in keeping with the principle that the government should treat people equally. How people get to the lanes is up to the airlines, which are free to apply the principle that everything has a price. Of course the net result is that the airlines are free to slice ‘n’ dice their customers however they wish.

With the tools provided here, you can decide for yourselves whether America’s airport terminals have been plunged into moral chaos as well as the physical kind. For myself, I need to think about it for a few more hours. And I think I know where I’ll find the time.