A new travel nightmare: Applying Free Market ideas to travel security.

The TSA just announced a new program called the Registered Traveler Program which will supposedly “accelerate the screening process” at airports so you can get your ass onto your flight faster. Sounds great, right? Sure, until you look closer at exactly what the TSA wants to put into place. Take a moment to read this article at ArsTechnica.com about the new program. Here’s a snippet:

Welcome to the brave new world of “market-driven” airport security, where different private security firms run and operate different lanes at different checkpoints, offering varied levels of accelerated screening depending on how much a user paid and how deep of a background check he or she submitted to. Thus the speed at which you move through a checkpoint will theoretically depend on a multiplicity of factors, only two of which are under your control (the depth of your background check and the firm(s) with which you’ve contracted). Other factors affecting your screening time, like which private security firm is manning a checkpoint and what resources that particular firm has invested in a particular checkpoint (e.g. extra personnel, more screening equipment, and so on) at a particular time of day, are entirely out of your control.

Constant change, creative destruction, risk, unpredictability, inequality, profit maximizing behaviors, incentives (both aligned and misaligned), choice (for travelers and for terrorists) and all of those other things that we’ve all come to love about free markets will now be part of our airport screening experience. Frequent flyers, rejoice!

But that’s not all! The RT program not only has the free-market attributes I’ve just described, but the TSA will intervene at random times to ensure that this little (faux) market system doesn’t naturally self-organize into something rational, stable, and predictable. The TSA has assured us that they will randomly juggle about the benefits of the program to keep the terrorists off-balance. I’m not kidding. They actually said this:

    We know that terrorists may seek to exploit the Registered Traveler program, and the program must be designed to thwart those efforts. Therefore, program benefits will change from time to time in order to make it more difficult for terrorists to anticipate our security activities. Further, TSA will not exempt Registered Traveler participants from random additional screening.

So you’ll never be sure what, if anything, your participation in the program is going to do for your screening time, because even if you contract with one company and always fly out of the same terminal at the same time of the day through the same checkpoint, the TSA may decide to mix it up on you just for giggles and tack another ten minutes onto your screening time.

I’ve not flown since 9/11 happened and, honestly, I can’t say that I’m looking forward to ever doing it again what with all the idiocy that’s been put in place at the airports the value of which is still questionable. Sounds like this new program is going to be fun for all you frequent flyers!

6 thoughts on “A new travel nightmare: Applying Free Market ideas to travel security.

  1. Wow. Up until now, I wasn’t sure how the current system of inefficient and unreliable airport screening could be any worse than it already is. It’s good to see that — somewhere — someone is coming up with creative ways to make a bad thing even worse.

    Way to think out of the box, TSA!

  2. I confess that ‘market-driven secuirty screenings’ raises all MY security flags like hell. How much of that is satire, though?

    It is SMART business to change things around every once in a while. Like a military compound changes patrol routines to make it harder to avoid them. Why shouldn’t they?

    As for the hardship/hassles of flying – are you overstating that, overreporting some bad incidents (LOTS of people fly, there’s gonna be a few instances of rude or even illegal behaviour of security personnel) – or is it really so bad, but only in the US?

    I have flown international 5 times last year, had security checks in Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Auckland and Wellington. I was never treated rudely, and feeling safe from hijackers was worth the hassle of putting my stuff through screening machines 5-6 times every flight.

  3. Feeling safe isn’t the same as being safe.

    In a low-incidence event like aircraft terrorism, it is still worth a lot, unless you want to stop flying.

    Also, I don’t think it has exactly gotten worse, okay?

  4. In a low-incidence event like aircraft terrorism, it is still worth a lot, unless you want to stop flying.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree.

    A lot of money has been sunk into the TSA. Exactly what was that money used for and was it well spent?

  5. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Ah, come on! We didn’t even get to arguing wink

    A lot of money has been sunk into the TSA. Exactly what was that money used for and was it well spent?

    Fair question – though as I stated, I was talking about the security checks in various other parts of the world, which to my laymen’s eye seemed sensible and courteous enough.

    What I was saying was: why do some of you behave like flying has become a real chore (well, beyond the chore that it was before 9/11)? I spent maybe 30-40 minutes (maximum, not average) on security checks when I fly to New Zealand. Seeing that the whole thing takes 1.5 days, that dioesn’t seem too much.

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