Beware “Simple” Solutions

Gattuso Op-Ed In The USA Today<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Everyone agrees that action is needed to improve aviation security. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there's no question about that. Each day it seems that attention shifts to some simple-sounding “common-sense” solution.

Policymakers should beware those easy answers: Not only is there no magic bullet that will always foil terrorists, but missteps could actually hurt efforts to increase safety.

Most recently, many have urged that every piece of checked baggage be screened for explosives. The idea sounds like a no-brainer, and in fact efforts have been underway for several years to increase the amount of baggage examined (slowed, at least early on, by the Federal Aviation Administration as well as airline delays). But checking all bags raises real concerns. There are already substantial questions as to whether baggage screeners catch all potential threats.

What will happen when, instead of selected baggage, they are flooded with the bags of all 600 million-plus passengers annually in the USA?

Today, using a “computer-assisted passenger screening” system, airlines try to sort out the vacationing grandmother from the potential terrorist, allowing more thorough review of the latter. A system that instead treats all baggage the same could end up merely giving U.S. travelers the illusion of security, while decreasing the level of scrutiny truly questionable items receive.

Universal screening could also diminish safety in more indirect ways. At more than $2 million to purchase and install each screening unit, the total cost would be in the billions — resources that could be used for other security measures. Universal testing is also certain to increase delays for travelers.

Supporters of universal testing scoff at this: Who wouldn't mind a little inconvenience in the name of safety? In fact, that inconvenience, as well as the extra cost, can itself reduce safety, as Americans inevitably flock to the (much less safe) highways instead of going to the airport.

Rather than end selective screening, we could improve it. As a start, government agencies should ensure that information they have on potential terrorists is passed on to airlines, which was not done Sept. 11.

This is not to say we should not screen more baggage, or that universal screening could never work. But policymakers need to evaluate the unintended consequences of their actions and beware rushing to adopt seemingly simple solutions.

James L. Gattuso is vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Copyright © 2001 The USA Today