Is Aviation Security Cost-Effective?

Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent $6 billion a year on aviation security to prevent a similar attack. The two most direct efforts to prevent airliner hijackings have been the hardening of cockpit doors and increased presence of air marshals on flights. These measures alone have cost the government and airlines $1 billion a year. Is that money well spent?

Levitt has wondered about the costs and benefits of airline security before. Now Mark Stewart, a civil engineer at the University of Newcastle and John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, have run some numbers.

Their study, which considered the lives of airborne passengers and potential victims on the ground, found that hardened cockpit doors cost roughly $800,000 per life saved. At the same time, they calculate the air marshal program to cost roughly $180 million per life saved (assuming, that is, the marshals aren’t grounded when their names come up on the terrorist no-fly list, a problem the Washington Times reported on earlier this year).

The Federal Aviation Administration considers any innovation which costs less than $3 million per life saved to be cost-effective. By that metric, hardening cockpit doors seems to be cost effective, while the air marshals program is not.

(HT: Bruce Schneier)

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  1. MRB says:

    I think it’s worth it. 9/11 almost bankrupted the airline industry. The penalty for “another 9/11″ (Besides Bush declaring himself Decider-For-Life) would be the end of all the major airlines. So from their standpoint, I think it is worth it.

    Not that I think our new security has helped prevent an attack, but the cost of an attack is so catastrophic that I think the money spent is worth it.

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  2. Paul says:

    I didn’t read the study but is there really a large enough sample size of terrorist attacks stopped by either measure to find anything statistically significant?

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  3. Susan says:

    Has anyone calculated the cost per life lost of screening for hair gel?

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  4. Jim says:

    I don’t know what is or us not cost effective but I know something is broken. On a recent trip between two of our busiest airports, I realized that I had forgotten to leave my tube of hairgel at home, so I removed it from my carryon backpack and threw it in the covenient trash barrel at the head of the security line. Imagine my surprise — and horror — to return home and find that an x-acto knife and box of matches were still in my bag and had made it through security not once but twice– and one of these airports was the origin of two if the 9/11 flights. Something is not working or else there actually is some racial profiling going on and being a white man with blue eyes I was not considered a threat.

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  5. Fed Up says:


    The current security regulations are ridiculous! They need to stop the current plan and reanalyze what security precautions are really necessary. I don’t have a big problem with not carrying box cutters. I don’t have a big problem with them X-raying my shoes. But everything beyond that is SILLY.

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  6. Speedmaster says:

    As run by the feds? No.

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  7. Noah says:

    @Jim – Nothing is wrong. What could you have done with the x-acto knife and box of matches? Set off the smoke alarm in the lavatory? Cut a few people before the rest of the passengers tore you to pieces? Even if you had a gun, what are the odds that you would make it to the cockpit? The worst that you could do is decompress the cabin, unless you had some serious explosives. Even then, all you could do is crash one plane. A terrorist could achieve a lot more damage using those inside the airport. Another 9/11 is not possible, not for quite some time.

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  8. Lawrence says:

    While it is difficult to know what may have happened without cockpit doors, there isn’t a single incident on record where a hardened cockpit door has directly prevented a cockpit intrusion.

    The hardened door, however, could cost lives in an accident scenario similar to Helios Flight 522 in 2005. The cockpit crew became incapacitated due to oxygen deprivation. A flight attendant was able to enter the cockpit using security procedures shortly before both engines ran out of fuel using a spare oxygen bottle to maintain consciousness.

    If the flight attendant had become incapacitated, no one could have entered the cockpit until the engine generator failed, disabling the electronic lock. In a similar situation, an able passenger will not be able to intervene.

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