Study: How Much Airport Security is Too Much?

A provocative new academic paper offers a cost-benefit analysis of the security measures in place at the world's airports. Its finding: Considering the potential threat, we're spending too much.

Airport security takes a lot of work—and a lot of money. Is it worth the high costs? According to a controversial new study, perhaps not.

“Cost-Benefit Analysis of Airport Security: Are Airports Too Safe?,” a paper by political science professor and security studies expert John Mueller of Ohio State University and Mark G. Stewart, a civil engineering professor at Australia’s University of Newcastle, appears in the March issue of the Journal of Air Transport Management.

It was found that attack probabilities had to be much higher than currently observed rates of attack to justify protective measures.

The study [PDF] makes its argument by comparing the probability of different terror scenarios (including bombings and shootings), assesses the risk of such incidents actually happening at an airport, and considers security measures to prevent them, placing those measures on a cost-benefit ratio.

“It was found that attack probabilities had to be much higher than currently observed rates of attack to justify protective measures,” the paper states. “This was the general result even though the analysis was substantially biased toward coming to the opposite conclusion.”

The study—which puts the value of a human life at $7 million—can come across as a bit coldblooded, Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Drake Bennett notes. But he adds that it still has a place in policy considerations.

“Mueller’s point is that we have to do these calculations precisely because terrorism is so politically and emotionally fraught,” Bennett writes. “There are lots of things that we, as a society, could do to make ourselves safer but choose not to because of the cost, in time or money or restrictions on our freedom: A 25 mph speed limit on the interstate, for example, would save a lot of lives.”

A couple caveats: The analysis, which included Los Angeles International Airport, was done before a Transportation Security Administration agent was fatally shot there last fall, The Los Angeles Times notes. Additional airport security measures have been discussed as a result of the LAX shooting. Also, the study focuses on measures to secure airport facilities, not airplanes; it examines measures like police patrols and controls at curbside dropoff points rather than TSA security checkpoints or the need to restrict certain items in carry-on luggage.

Is it better to have more security than we need in public spaces such as airports, or less? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

(Getty Images News/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!