TSA screenings drive passengers to find alternatives to flying

TSA screenings are becoming increasingly invasive. Will more travelers choose to take the bus or train, or even stay home and teleconference?

Jerry Holt / The Star Tribune / AP / File
A sign explaining millimeter wave imaging technology is displayed at checkpoint 10 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sept. 22. Security officials say the full-image technology is a critical tool to help head off potential threats, but some passengers are choosing to avoid flying rather than undergo the examination.

Here’s my Division of Labour co-blogger (and fellow Wash U economics PhD) Michael Munger doing his usual kvetching about this or that pointless and expensive invasion of privacy. As there have now been naked pictures of me taken at several airports (San Francisco, most recently), all I can say to poor Mike is that these encroachments on and invasions of our basic liberties are the price we pay for freedom.

There are ways around this, though, at least for short trips. I’ve made three trips to St. Louis in the last month or so, and on two of these trips I took Greyhound. Once you factor in waiting time at the airport, the interminably long time it takes to de-plane and get luggage, and all of the other hassles of air travel, it didn’t take that much longer to take the bus. What’s more, the bus ticket only cost a little bit more than the gas I would have burned driving round-trip (and a fraction of what I would have paid for a plane ticket), it was much more comfortable than a plane, and I could either work or sleep over the course of the trip. Every seat had at least exit-row leg room, and the bus from Memphis to St. Louis had wifi. It was also nice to be able to use my phone or computer without having to worry about when it was safe to use portable electronic devices.

One of the best parts is that I didn’t have to deal with the TSA or any TSA-related delays. Indeed, on my way home from Saint Louis last Saturday, I got to the bus station about ten minutes or so before the bus was scheduled to leave. I had to sprint back and forth between the bus and the ticket counter so I could get a claim check for my luggage, but I didn’t miss my bus. If you ever show up at an airport less than an hour before your flight departs, making your flight is almost certainly going to be close (fortunately, though, a lot of airlines are releasing smartphone apps that allow you to check in and actually display your boarding pass on the phone itself).

Especially as the TSA is now taking nude pictures of people who want to try to board planes, I expect to see vigorous and healthy competition for short-haul travel from companies like Greyhound and Megabus. Yes, I know that the market is loaded with distortions in the form of highway subsidies, government air traffic control, and the like, but sat the margin it’s at least nice to know we have options.

Update: Will Wilkinson joins the chorus of TSA naysayers. In addition to competition from ground transportation, I expect to see people shift toward videoconferencing and the like rather than air travel. Will makes an important point about probabilities. You’re more likely to die from a lightning strike than to die from a terrorist attack (but, I wonder, are these conditional probabilities?). You’re also almost certainly far more likely to die driving to and from the airport than you are to die in a terrorist attack. Here’s an interesting EconTalk podcast in which Richard McKenzie entertains an economic truth but a political heresy: substitution toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 has probably led to more deaths than the terrorist attacks themselves. If the new Congress is looking to eliminate resource-wasting, job-killing, American-imperiling government enterprises, it should start with the TSA. HT: Robert Lawson for the link to Will’s post.

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