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)


It all goes to show, I think, that we are not really at war. If we were truly at war, do we dare think that a Arab Muslim (or I suppose, any Muslim) would be allowed to board an airplane unsearched?

I understand that's not politically correct. I understand it is a burden to our Muslim brothers and sisters. And yet "war" demands that we do the right, if unpopular thing (though the only person it appears to be unpopular with is the head of all this security).

I sent in a simply idea. I never got a response. Shows they have it already figured out, thank you. Very simply, I said that after every, say, 20th person, a "test package" is sent through the X-ray/Metal detector just to make sure that it is working (I had read about a group of people that ALL had to be recalled and go through the process again because, unbeknownst to the security team, the machine wasn't working properly).

We search grandmothers, and whomever in a RANDOM effort to obtain safety. Is that really a good idea? Shouldn't we focus on the one segment of the population from which 99% of our Muslim enemies are drawn?

Again, this is not to denigrate Muslims, but to simply realize that our enemy is comprised almost entirely of Muslims. If our enemy was the Swedish, I'd have no problem if they checked out out every Swedish passenger. Sorry.

Profiling is a MUST in this war. And we have simply been lucky thus far. Sooner or later, some terrorist is going to figure out how to assemble, piece by piece, trip after trip, what they need to bring the plane down.

And then we'll boldly declare war on, oh, Indonesia, and go right back to random searches.

Makes you wonder what the "war" is all about when it doesn't seem we are really at war, doesn't it?


tim noonan

Why do we assume that any of this leads to more people flying? This is another unsupportable assumption. The TSA encourages people to drive by making flying unpleasant. The TSA has caused the motor vehicle death rate to increase since 9/11 by far more than the number of people the terrorists killed. The lives that might be saved in the air are dwarfed by the extra highway fatalities, due to the TSA. Essentially we are paying them a huge amount of money to kill Americans. This is safety?

M Todd

The biggest security factor that will prevent another 9/11 is the fact no one will be able to take a plane over with box cutters or perhaps even a gun today.

Before 9/11 passengers would remain seated and comply with a box cutter wheeling hijacker because per 9/11 wisdom was to comply. Now since 9/11 200 passengers will not sit by and let someone take the plane over. This was been proven several times since 9/11. The greatest safety is safety in numbers. The would-be shoe bomber learned this and he can be thankful the passengers did not tear him apart.

Personally I believe our security should be focused on someone trying to smuggle explosives on board either in person or cargo. Also, training pilots and in flight personnel with Tasers would not be a bad idea either.

Today if any passenger stands up with anything less than a AK-47 he will get his butt kicked. The last group I would want to fight is today's airline passenger who is already on edge from a day of air travel.



A co-worker of mine got past security in Baltimore by accidentaly handing the boarding pass checker her husband's boarding pass from Milwaukee to L.A.

Another pair of friends made it to the gate at Dulles only to realize their flight left from a totally different airport.

The security scanners, not just at airports, but at all government buildings, seem more concerned with helping you get throught he scanner without it beeping than with figuring out why its beeping.

Those are my observations.


The supposed 180M going to the Air Marshal program per life saved is not the same as burning 180M per life saved. The money is being paid to honorable American citizens who pay taxes and presumably put the money back in the economy.

How much of that 180M is going to come back to the government in income taxes on the agents and taxes on the goods and services they consume and are consumed through the multiplier effect?

Also, 1b spent on the program per year and 180M per life means about 5 lives saved per year. If you train all of the agents to use those heart defribulation paddles and basic emergency medical care I'll bet you can significantly boost that number. If they're not trained this way maybe they should be as an Air Marshal / nurse seems easily valuble enough to have on board.


Another part of this equation is 'what else could have been done with the money'

There are the usual 'solve cancer' comments, but also more police on the streets to stop murders (what is the drive by shooting to terrorist victim ration?), more vaccines, cheaper access to drugs (the good kind..).

I would love to see a comparison of cause of death v's money spent to prevent it. I bet terrorisim would be way over funded.

Kawika Holbrook

Bush's TSA is Roosevelt's WPA without the long-term infrastructure gains.


Wasn't he government spending a fortune on border patrols before 9/11? And then they hijacked planes. So now that they're spending a fortune on protecting planes, terrorists will attack elsewhere. If anyone in government has read SunTzu, which they should, they should know that the enemy will attack where and when it is least EXPECTED, and not the well-defended and screened strongholds.

Therefore, all this security is a charade, kind of like kids closing their eyes to pretend they are invisible. I think the populace in general should grow up, and assume that life is never completely safe, and the mere fact of getting on a plane, pre or post 9/11 makes it a little more unsafe.


Is it cost-effective in terrorism prevention? No. Is it cost-effective on Political gain? A outstanding yes.

Passengers and voters in general just feel safer (I do, even when I am the first one to recognize it is not preventive)!!

It is preventive of spontaneous terrorist wanabee but hardly will it deter any seriouus terrorist at all. It is easy to conceal knifes or even homemade fire weapons into the frame of hand luggage frame filled with an X ray opaque paste. Also it is easy to see the numbers stewardess type on the keypads to access the cotpit, not to mention causing a strange burning smell to make one stewardess to tell one of the pilots to investigate it so they will open that door whenever you want to.

It is also easy to enter the US, France, Morocco or any other country whenever one wants with a small budget as small as $2000. Let’s face it, in the US 8million recently did!

However politicians will hire more border patrols, security screeners and buy more expensive devices just to make us feel safer… and in a politically sense it does pay off.

Why haven’t been more terrorist attacks so? Simply put, because there are much less terrorists that some administrations wanted us to believe there are.


Sci Ed

A cost-benefit analysis must weigh the costs against the benefits. While direct cost can be calculated, indirect costs and any of the benefits must be estimated. As anyone who has done a cost benefit analysis can tell you, lots of assumptions enter the calculations. For example, on the cost side, have the cost of delays to the flying public been included?

On the benefit side, since thankfully terrorist events are not frequent, it is not clear at allwhat the historical risk basis is and how the numbers of avoided deaths have been estimated. It appears that these numbers can be increased or decreased quite easily.

From a more practical perspective, how many people would have stopped traveling by air had these measures not been taken? Many steps taken to increase security are in fact taken to provide the public with a sense of security rather than provide actual security.

On the other hand, I am fully in favor of most of the measures taken, even if some of these are entirely silly.

Science Editor

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Michael Bolton

So far, all of my esteemed fellow readers appear to have missed the bit in the Post article wherein air marshals were prevented from boarding because they had the same names as people on the No Fly lists. Apparently, those in charge of airline security are convinced that bad guys are unable to conceive of the idea of flying under an assumed name.

When security is being run with a brain trust like that, one would have to assume that virtually all of the money is wasted.


First, the most cost effective thing to do would have been, and still is, to root out Bin-Laden and company. And unlike Bush's "dead or alive" fantasy, just make it dead.

The government does not care about cost effective in most cases. Republicans care about it when its the EPA or OSHA. If cost-effective was an issue, then DEA probably would not exist. Welfare would be in the form of checks mailed to everyone under a certain income. First, and I speak from experience, each state has spent billions on systems to root out fraud in welfare. When I asked how much was saved versus what the system cost, I was told that number was not available because the Federal government says any fraud is unacceptable. Sounds good until you realize that it may feel good to spend $1000 to save $1 in fraud, but you are still out $999 instead of $1.


Posted by Lawrence "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."

Anyone who thinks 9-11 will be repeated is delusional. Do these people have no imagination. There are probably dozens of alternative acts that can be undertaken with little risk and can be at least as disruptive.

Closing the bases in Afghanistan and keeping pressure on them elsewhere was the main reason for no repeats of 9-11 type actions.


Noah - if you think that another attack like 9/11 isn't possible:

"Another 9/11 is not possible, not for quite some time. "

Your an arrogant fool - of course it's doable.

Hardened cockpit doors? Useless if the pilot can actually open them - how many people would a hijacker have to kill with something as simple as a box cutter, which other posters have made clear are still able to be taken onto a plane (I will admit - they were taken on unintentionally - but still were taken on), before they would open the door - my bet is not many, if any.

With speed and surprise, entering the cockpit would be doable, and once they are in there - well, they don't need to control the rest of the plane, do they? The airlines have now provided them with a nice safe little place to sit and do what ever they choose to do, with hardened and locked doors to keep everyone else out!

About the economics of cost associated with the cost per human life saved - we are forgetting the number one thing that needs to be known to know if the cost is worth it - how much is a human life worth?



Response to #7: I agree with you that the items described are not a significant threat, but that's not the point. Those items are forbidden, so I assume the screeners aren't seeing them and letting them pass, but rather, failed to catch them. What else might they fail to catch, then?


wintermute @ 10 is asking the right question. Estimating the number of lives saved sounds like quite an assumption to me.


"Before the attacks - people were told to cooperate with hijackers. Today - those same hijackers would be torn apart."

Through 2006-07, there were at least 5 hijackings around the world, including at least one where the hijacker made it into the cockpit. That's why Marshals are still necessary.

And while others have already mentioned this, the study you cite is incomplete, since it is only looking at lives saved, and not overall harm to businesses across the U.S (the flower industry alone would be devastated). The total loss would likely be high enough to justify Air Marshals using their reasoning.


I'm not sure where this money is being spent considering there are air marshals on 1% of flights (according to a CNN investigation).


The $6B per year spent on security appears to be very well spent.

According to the US Department of Transportation, Bureau of Statistics, there were 10,642,766 revenue departures in the US from May of 2007 until May of 2008.

Since 2001 we've had no further US hijackings perpetrated either the domestic variety or international variety of terrorists. [As an aside, perhaps not entirely unrelated, general aviation safety appears to have improved considerably since the end of the last century.]

I digress.

Dividing the stated cost above ($6B) by the number of revenue departures (10,642,766) yields the paltry sum of $600 per departure. This seems like a reasonable amount when spread out over all of the revenue flights.

If you take another approach and divide the one billion dollars above by the number of commercial passenger emplanements which in 2007 was 761,143,937 this would add $7.86 to each airline ticket. [I say charge me $10 and speed up the lines and hire people who smile and are friendly.]

The above cited study may be wildly skewed and erroneous (I haven't read it yet) due to the effect of deterrence on one hand, and increased utilization by trusting passengers (as mentioned above), perhaps erroneously so, on the other.

How can one know that a hardened door costs $800K per saved life unless one knows how many terrorist attacks have been prevented for certain. One can speculate but it is simply a WAG.

The degree of passenger screening both personal and due to data mining, plus the beefed up in-flight changes are well known to most people but especially by the flying public.

The terrorists who wreaked havoc in 2001 actually became the flying public by taking preparatory trips, not to mention immersing themselves in aviation studies. Contemporaneous terrorists would find the old approach daunting at best.

Another overlooked issue is that of the unruly passenger. There are on average 150 incidents per year of this variety and this is another reason for on board marshals as well as a secure cockpit.

On the other hand, with gas prices increasing, and other costs inflating, the added cost of security to the mix may have a down-regulating effect on flights, not to mention our extremely sluggish economy.

I'm waiting for a black market Stinger, or Chinese knock-off, to bring down a US airline somewhere in the world. (I sincerely hope it doesn't happen.)

I think this to be our next worry/challenge and I would spend another billion (hey, it's just tax money. The US taxpayer can afford it.) on researching technology to counteract this as well as spend more money on counterterrorism.



I've always thought the term "security theater" was perfectly descriptive of a lot of airline security measures.

(coined by Bruce Schneier in "Beyond Fear")

There's no doubt that passengers in any future hijacking would take collective action to avoid another 9/11.