You don't have to be a frequent flyer to know about how long lines are at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints. Just getting through them can take longer than your flight needs to get to its destination.
And those lines have been getting only longer, adding to the frustrating security process.
The reasons for this travel nightmare include more people flying than expected, cuts to the TSA's budget, suboptimal deployment of security personnel, miscalculation of the costs and benefits of screening and perverse incentives from tax rules on airfares and baggage fees.
But that doesn't mean the process can't be fixed. Here are three ideas -- borrowed from the world of economics -- for how to speed things up:
Account for the value of waiting time: Economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Richard Thaler point out that when Congress cut the TSA's budget last year, it didn't account for how that affected passenger waiting time. This causes "perverse incentives for government agencies," they wrote. "Cutting staff improves an agency's bottom line, while wasting citizens' time has little material consequence."
An evaluation of the TSA's budget and procedures should compare all of the costs and benefits, including the cost of waiting in line. To use one of the economists' examples, suppose that asking passengers to remove their shoes has a relatively small impact on passenger safety, but it increases waiting times at TSA checkpoints substantially. If we consider only the benefits, and ignore the costs imposed on passengers from the extra waiting time, it will appear that this procedure is worthwhile.
But if we account for the extra waiting time in this calculation, the conclusion could be different. I'm not an expert in airport security, so I can't say what the conclusion of a full accounting of the costs and benefits would would be, but failing to take account of the time cost clearly biases the outcome toward the long lines we're now seeing.
Tax incentives for bag fees: Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, notes that one of the reasons for slow lines at security checkpoints -- and slow loading times during boarding -- is the large number of carry-on bags. Currently, most airlines charge a fee for checked baggage and this gives people an incentive to carry-on as much as they can.
One reason airlines charge these fees involves tax rules Congress has created. Airlines tickets are subject to a 7.5 percent excise tax, but that levy doesn't apply to baggage fees. This gives airlines an incentive to "unbundle" the baggage fee from the ticket price and charge them separately. But if both charges got the same tax treatment, airlines would be more likely to include baggage-handling fees in the price of tickets rather than charging them separately.
Baker also suggested charging a $10 fee for carrying bags through a TSA checkpoint as an incentive for people to check their bags instead of carrying them on. I'm not sure I would go that far, and an evaluation of such a fee would have to include the extra waiting time to pick up additional checked bags after a flight, the increased chance of lost luggage and so on. But no good reason exists for the current differential tax treatment of baggage fees and tickets, and Congress could speed things up by fixing this problem.
Inefficient diversion of resources to PreCheck: Bloomberg's Justin Fox reports that fewer people have signed up for the TSA's PreCheck streamlined security procedure then the agency expected. Presently, 9.5 million use PreCheck or other programs that work with it, but the TSA figured 25 million would sign up.
How has this added to the long lines at checkpoints? "Devoting staff and machines to PreCheck screening lanes with hardly anybody going through them means taking them away from general screening lanes with lots of people going through them," wrote Fox.
Increasing enrollment in PreCheck faces two barriers, the cost of signing up and lack of knowledge that the program exists and the benefits it provides. The costs associated with signing up are fairly large, including a short, prescheduled interview, identification plus a birth certificate, fingerprints and a trip to an enrollment center.
Thus, it may not be worth the trouble for infrequent fliers. But the airlines could do far more to educate the public on the benefits of PreCheck and what it takes to sign up. They could also take other measures to reduce the cost of enrollment such as locating enrollment centers in terminals.
We can't expect TSA to completely eliminate lines at security checkpoints. At some point, the cost of reducing lines further will exceed the benefits. But lines are surely too long now, and a reasonable budget, efficient allocation of resources and a full accounting of the costs and benefits of screening would certainly help shrink them.