Security and privilege

Should First Class travelers get to skip the security lines? I doubt it.

I am somewhat longer and (alas) wider than the standard airline passenger, and have a rather iffy lower back. I am unmarried (but still looking! — adv’t) and not a recreational traveler. So whatever frequent flyer miles I don’t give away I spend on upgrades. I figure that the implicit cost is well justified by being able to work on the flight and by feeling less rotten when I get off it.

My (usually hyperactive) guilt mechanism has no trouble with most of the privileges associated with flying first or business class, including the expedited check-in and luggage handling. I buy them, I pay for them, I enjoy them. End of story.

But today was my first experience with the special “premier” security screening. While other travelers waited in long lines, first to have their bags checked and then to pass through the metal detectors, I was whisked through.

Without having thought through the matter carefully, this latest perk makes me uncomfortable. My guess is that the inhabitants of the front of the cabin are noticeably richer and more influential than those flying steerage — pardon me, that’s “coach class.” (“All American airlines have two classes of service,” a wise man said. “First Class and Third World.”) Is it really a good idea to let those folks buy their way out of the inconvenience associated with tightened airline security?

On reflection, there seem to be three issues here: equity, solidarity, and incentives.

— Security screening is a public, not a private, matter. Is it really appropriate to allow private firms to sell privileged treatment by an agency of the government?

— Wartime is traditionally a time of decreased status distinctions in the service of national solidarity. From that perspective, making security screening one more bastion of privilege — one more status insult to the non-elite — may be a bad idea.

— Setting security procedures involves a complicated balancing act among security, expense, and inconvenience. Exempting the most influential folks on the airplane from the inconvenience may result in a set of decisions — tough screening, short budgets — resulting in too much inconvenience for hoi polloi.

Robert Townsend of Avis fame, in his brief and witty management handbook Up the Organization, proposed a rule that no new form could be introduced into an organization until the Chief Executive Officer had filled it out, completely and correctly, without secretarial assistance. The point, of course, was not to waste the CEO’s time and boost his blood pressure, but to create a disincentive for wasting the time and boosting the blood pressure of everyone else in the firm. The same applies to airport security: if First Class has to put up with it just like everyone else, everyone else may have less to put up with.

Again, this is a reaction, not an analysis. What do you think?

Update The above turns out to be obscure; I didn’t mean that elite travelers get less scrutiny, only that they don’t have to wait as long. More thoughts here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: