Cost-Benefit Analysis of the TSA

A nice opening anecdote on life at the TSA from the Verge:

People cry at airports all the time. So when Jai Cooper heard sobbing from the back of the security line, it didn’t really faze her. As an officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), she had gotten used to the strange behavior of passengers. Her job was to check people’s travel documents, not their emotional well-being.

But this particular group of tearful passengers presented her with a problem. One of them was in a wheelchair, bent over with her head between her knees, completely unresponsive. “Is she okay? Can she sit up?” Cooper asked, taking their boarding passes and IDs to check. “I need to see her face to identify her.”

“She can’t, she can’t, she can’t,” said the passenger who was pushing the wheelchair.

Soon, Cooper was joined at her station by a supervisor, followed by an assortment of EMTs and airport police officers. The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport’s guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in. Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country’s medical system, they figured.

The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel’s many gray areas. Without a formal death certificate, the passenger could not be considered legally dead. And US law obligates airlines to accommodate their ticketed and checked-in passengers, even if they have “a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In short: she could still fly. But not before her body got checked for contraband, weapons, or explosives. And since the TSA’s body scanners can only be used on people who can stand up, the corpse would have to be manually patted down.

“We’re just following TSA protocol,” Cooper explained.

Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body’s “sensitive areas” — the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks — with “sufficient pressure to ensure detection.”

Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal.

Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.

Later we get to the economics:

Actuaries measure the cost-effectiveness of an intervention — say, a pharmaceutical drug or a safety device like a seat belt — with a metric called “cost per life saved.” This calculation tries to capture the total societal net resources spent in order to save one year of life. For example, mandatory seat belt laws cost $138; railway crossing gates cost $90,000; and inpatient intensive care at a hospital can cost up to $1 million per visit. As long as an intervention costs less than $10 million per life saved, government agencies are generally happy to back them.

The most generous independent estimates of the cost-effectiveness of the TSA’s airport security screening put the cost per life saved at around $15 million. And that makes two big assumptions: first, that the agency is both 100 percent effective and 100 percent responsible for stopping all terror attacks; and second, that it stops an attack on the scale of 9/11 about once a decade. Less optimistic assessments place the number at $667 million per life saved.

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