This weekend, I flew to Chicago for my business school reunion. I will not tire you with tales of the drinking and high jinks that ensued, mostly because, this being our 15th, the activities were more along the lines of swapping child photos and nursing a third beer. It was on the way home that the events of columnizing interest occurred: I found myself in the middle of what I thought was a confused crowd that turned out to be the line for security. Said line was, according to reports from classmates, running at least 90 minutes. Dozens of people were stranded overnight when the long lines caused people to miss their flights.
Nor is this an anomaly. The problem is occurring at busy airports nationwide. The TSA is blaming inadequate staffing, but government bureaucrats always blame inadequate staffing since agency headcount is generally a good proxy for "importance of the boss of said agency." As far as I was able to tell, all the scanners seemed to be operating, making me wonder what, exactly, extra people would have done, since no matter how many staffers you assign, only one person can pass through each checkpoint at a time. Besides, the number of passengers is not actually up at O'Hare airport that much, according to the latest numbers I could find.
So I tend to place more credence on the second explanation: The TSA has slowed down screening after last summer's humiliating failure to detect almost any of the contraband in a security audit. Even though I was in TSA Precheck, which had a blessedly short line, I spent more than 20 minutes waiting to get through. There was a confused fellow who must have gone through the metal detector half a dozen times before he finally realized he needed to shuck his belt, and two passengers who seemed to speak almost no English. Then, with the line still backing up, the TSA person made the woman ahead of me stop and go back through because she had jokingly danced back and forward. And made me go through again because ... I walked through with my hands in my pockets, having jammed them there while I stood around watching the show.
I've struggled to figure out how moving backward and then forward at walking speed, could defeat a metal detector. Either the magnetic circuit detects metal or it doesn't. The TSA agents didn't seem to know either; they just threatened the woman that she could be kept off her flight for playing around. Apparently, issuing absurd threats to American citizens over harmless behavior is something that requires a complement of two TSA officers. No wonder they're understaffed.
But this is the essential logic of bureaucracy. The TSA will suffer terribly if a terrorist slips through with a bomb — or even if the auditors make it through with a fake bomb. On the other hand, what happens to them if there are long lines? Not much. They've got to be there for eight hours, so why should they care if we are too? This is why government agencies tend to be much more attuned to remote risks than the real and persistent costs they impose on the rest of us.
This is also the essential problem of American security theater. Thorough screening is very expensive and time-consuming, particularly because most of our airports weren't built for this level of screening. At Reagan, my preferred airport, there's pretty much nowhere to put another security line.
The easiest way to keep the lines moving is to screen less carefully. All screening faces an inherent tradeoff between false positives and false negatives; you eliminate one by accepting more of the other. When the TSA decides to crack down on the false negatives (the threats they missed), that means they get more false positives, as every person with an oddly bulging body, a forgotten water bottle or a penchant for impromptu dance performances has to go through the checkpoint again. And that takes up a lot of time, during which the lines grow and grow.
A rational cost-benefit analysis might well dictate that it's better to accept some higher risk of threats than to accept the lines. O'Hare runs something in the vicinity of 150,000 domestic passengers a day through its domestic operations. Even valuing the time of all those passengers at minimum wage, a 90-minute line costs more than $1.5 million in lost value. Now, OK, some of those people didn't wait that long, but call it $1 million. Call it $500,000. Then multiply that times many days, many years. Even with an absurdly low value on the time of the passengers, that's hundreds of millions in costs at just one of our nation's many airports.
But that's not how political and bureaucratic logic works. If the TSA loosens up its screening procedures to the point where almost everything gets through, the lines move — but then there's not really any point in having the TSA.
Which is a conversation worth having. This security theater since Sept. 11, 2001, has probably done less to deter terrorists than the reinforced cockpit doors and passengers' new awareness that a hijacking could end in fiery death rather than, as security expert Bruce Schneier likes to say, "a week in Havana." There's a reason that the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber were subdued by their fellow passengers.
Moreover, even if the TSA does help us perfectly harden airplanes against attack — well, as Paris demonstrated, you don't need to get on an airplane to kill a lot of people. Terror attacks can always shift to softer targets — like, for example, vast airport security lines where hundreds of people are forced to stand crammed into a very small space. It would be a much better use of our money and time to invest in catching terrorists before they get to their target.
But in the history of the world, few indeed are the managers or bureaucrats who have said: "Yup, what we're doing is useless, you should probably fire me and all my staff." It's pretty much inevitable that the TSA, having flunked its audit, is going to choose to impose huge burdens on airline passengers, rather than admit that it's not actually doing all that much to keep us safe.
I'd bet that in the next six months, the TSA will be rewarded for the longer lines by having its budget and headcount increased. If that doesn't fix the problem, I'd guess the TSA's next step will be to make it look as if it did — by relaxing the screening standards once again and thereby speeding up the lines. The end result of this cycle: a bigger, more expensive agency that still doesn't do much to keep us safe. As the nice lady said to me when I finally deplaned, "Welcome to Washington."
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist writing on economics, business and public policy.