Security Screening for New York Helicopters

There's a helicopter shuttle that runs from Lower Manhattan to Kennedy Airport. It's basically a luxury item: for $139 you can avoid the drive to the airport. But, of course, security screeners are required for passengers, and that's causing some concern:

At the request of U.S. Helicopter's executives, the federal Transportation Security Administration set up a checkpoint, with X-ray and bomb-detection machines, to screen passengers and their luggage at the heliport.

The security agency is spending $560,000 this year to operate the checkpoint with a staff of eight screeners and is considering adding a checkpoint at the heliport at the east end of 34th Street. The agency's involvement has drawn criticism from some elected officials.

"The bottom line here is that there are not enough screeners to go around," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. "The fact that we are taking screeners that are needed at airports to satisfy a luxury market on the government's dime is a problem."

This is not a security problem; it's an economics problem. And it's a good illustration of the concept of "externalities." An externality is an effect of a decision not borne by the decision-maker. In this example, U.S. Helicopter made a business decision to offer this service at a certain price. And customers will make a decision about whether or not the service is worth the money. But there is more to the cost than the $139. The cost of that checkpoint is an externality to both U.S. Helicopter and its customers, because the $560,000 spent on the security checkpoint is paid for by taxpayers. Taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the true cost of the helicopter trip.

The only way to solve this is for the government to bill the airline passengers for the cost of security screening. It wouldn't be much per ticket, maybe $15. And it would be much less at major airports, because the economies of scale are so much greater.

The article even points out that customers would gladly pay the extra $15 because of another externality: the people who decide whether or not to take the helicopter trip are not the people actually paying for it.

Bobby Weiss, a self-employed stock trader and real estate broker who was U.S. Helicopter's first paying customer yesterday, said he would pay $300 for a round trip to Kennedy, and he expected most corporate executives would, too.

"It's $300, but so what? It goes on the expense account," said Mr. Weiss, adding that he had no qualms about the diversion of federal resources to smooth the path of highfliers. "Maybe a richer guy may save a little time at the expense of a poorer guy who spends a little more time in line."

What Mr. Weiss is saying is that the costs -- both the direct cost and the cost of the security checkpoint -- are externalities to him, so he really doesn't care. Exactly.

Posted on April 4, 2006 at 7:51 AM • 50 Comments

Comments

BobApril 4, 2006 8:50 AM

Well if Mr. Weiss is actually self-employed, then the expense account is not an externality to him. It may result in a write-off, but it's still a cost. I think he was talking more to the situation of corporate executives.

Erik TroanApril 4, 2006 9:03 AM

One of the reasons I enjoy this blog so much is it's solid economic footing. Taking the externality out would solve this problem nicely, prevent people who never fly from having to pay for airport security, and (perhaps) make people wonder if they're getting the security they would see themselves getting billed for on every receipt. The free market is quite efficient at finding solutions, but you have to let it.

bobApril 4, 2006 9:34 AM

Just pay $10 and hang-glide from the observation deck of the empire state building to the airport. Plenty of thermals over Manhattan (lots of thermals over the capitol building too, but thats a different issue). Not sure how you'd get back, though.

DApril 4, 2006 9:47 AM

You can get your own single-passenger helicopter for $25,000 (google mosquito helicopter)- the cost of a *lot* of cars out there. Cars that are being used to ferry a single fat backside back and forth in traffic.

Add that to your heavy thinking...

whynotApril 4, 2006 9:49 AM

Probably this is a very silly question/comment, but why those passangers don't cross through one of the security points that JFK has?

Leave them at certain point in the airport so they are forced to cross trough the one of the security points they airport already had there

I know, they are (saving time) paying to avoid the long time in the hw, or security screen lanes, and make them cross through that point will make them lost time again.

Ed T.April 4, 2006 9:53 AM

I am not sure that US Helicopter's decision is the real externality here. The US Gov't made the decision that security screeners were required; they also decided that the service would be provided by TSA, and funded by the taxpayers (on the thought that the taxpayers benefit from not having airplanes flown by hijackers ramming into their buildings.) Services such as this (or small puddle-jumper 'airlines' which deliver passengers to secured zones at major airports) are going to have this issue to deal with. I certainly think there is a better way to handle security at airports than we have currently, and would start by putting the cost of operating the screeners on the airport (who then passes it on to their customers, who then passes it on to the flying public.) The taxpayers pick up the tab for the (rather expensive) equipment required. This allows the standards to be met, while allowing the customers to decide (by how much they are willing to pay) the level of service (speedy checks/long lines) they receive.

~EdT.

Bruce SchneierApril 4, 2006 9:54 AM

"Probably this is a very silly question/comment, but why those passangers don't cross through one of the security points that JFK has?"

My guess is that they're considering to be "changing planes" when they arrive at JFK. Like all airports in the U.S., you only have to clear security if you arrive from the outside (or an international flight). If you land at an airport, you get let off your plane inside security.

That alone is probably reason enough to use the helicopter. JFK security lines can be nasty, albeit they're better if you're flying Business or First Class, or have the right frequent flier card.

Mike SherwoodApril 4, 2006 9:56 AM

Something about this whole topic doesn't seem right to me. I understand the motivation for the TSA being involved in screening everyone who goes on a large airplane. Those are the most attractive targets. Is this a requirement of all commercial flights?

In contrast, TSA has no involvement or screening procedures for private aircraft. One of my friends has a commercial pilot's license. As I understand it, he can permit private citizens to be armed in his aircraft.

The assumption that everyone coming in on an aircraft has already been screened and is exempt from rescreening doesn't make sense to me. It just seems like this could be a viable attack vector. It seems much more complex to ensure that commercial and private traffic are always segregated at all airports than to require rescreening in fringe cases. Creating a checkpoint for a small group of passengers seems like a waste of resources. On the other hand, if small aircraft security were the responsibility of the company running the aircraft, making sure no one crashes or blows up their helicopter becomes an internality.

Bruce SchneierApril 4, 2006 9:57 AM

"I am not sure that US Helicopter's decision is the real externality here. The US Gov't made the decision that security screeners were required; they also decided that the service would be provided by TSA, and funded by the taxpayers (on the thought that the taxpayers benefit from not having airplanes flown by hijackers ramming into their buildings.)"

Correct; taxpayers benefit from TSA screening, so taxpayers should set the standards. The question is whether or not taxpayers should subsidize the cost of the helicopter. From a taxpayer point of view, there shouldn't be any helicopter rides from Manhattan to JFK: taxpayers in general don't benefit from it. Individuals benefit from such a service, which is why they're paying for the ticket. But they're not paying for the true cost of the service, as part of it is subsidized.

Andre LePlumeApril 4, 2006 9:59 AM

By the same token, Bruce, da gubmint gladly will put up a post office in nearly any town with more than 10 people in it, and rural telephone service is subsidized by us city folk -- by government directive.

If (big if...) baggage screening is so important, then perhaps as a matter of public policy it should be provided. I'm all for sane economic analysis, but in this situation it seems like Schumer wants it both ways -- that is, he wants the government to centrally direct scarce resources "optimally", in the economic sense of the term. That has never been successful, and it never will be. You either let the market decide (and structure rights/contracts so that externalities are internalized), or you step outside/beyond econ and accept that these are political decisions made by the polity, not allocation decisions made by consumers. None of this takes away from your point, just broadens the view some.

Hey -- here's an idea. Tell Mr. Rich Guy he's free to fly, but first he has to go through the nearest screening facility. I suspect that'd be the one at LaGuardia, or maybe Teterboro. Mwuhahaha.

Mark LomasApril 4, 2006 10:11 AM

The underlying problem is that the US authorities are trying to pretend that they don't operate in a market economy.

When I arrive at JFK, assuming I don't charter a helicopter, I am given a choice between a bus, a taxi, or a limousine. It is up to me to choose whether to spend more for convenience or comfort. I usually choose a taxi - the important word being 'choose'.

I don't get that choice at the security checkpoint.

Imagine there were three queues at the checkpoint. It costs $50 to join queue A, $25 to join queue B, and is free to join queue C. Anyone in queue A gets priority access to the checkpoint; if queue A is empty anyone in queue B gets priority; queue C customers are only allowed through if there is nobody in the other two queues. Everybody goes through the same checkpoint.

Security is no worse. The number of people scanned is the same. The cost of the security check has been subsidised (unless everyone joins queue C).

If people are willing to pay extra for faster service, why is only private industry that takes their money?

Protect CongressApril 4, 2006 10:30 AM

Hypocrisy knows no shame.

It would be interesting to see if Senator Schumer is a USHelicopter customer.

Also, I'm sure Senator Schumer strongly supports the deployment of screeners used to protect the Congress.

Alan PorterApril 4, 2006 10:32 AM

BS> From a taxpayer point of view, there
BS> shouldn't be any helicopter rides from
BS> Manhattan to JFK: taxpayers in general
BS> don't benefit from it. Individuals benefit
BS> from such a service...

Using that logic, nonflyers should not pay for
any TSA activities. And unmarried people and childless couples should not pay taxes
towards education. Or people with jobs
should not pay for welfare programs.

Where the government gets its funding has
nothing to do with where the money gets
spent.

The revenue is collected in a way that
encourages and discourages certain behaviors
(tax breaks if you form a small business,
etc). And the money is spent in a way that
most of the collective needs of the nation
are met. And these two do not necessarily
balance, nor are they related.

Pat CahalanApril 4, 2006 10:49 AM

@ Alan

> Using that logic, nonflyers should not pay for
any TSA activities. And unmarried people and
> childless couples should not pay taxes
towards education. Or people with jobs
> should not pay for welfare programs.

No, because taxpayers get benefits from all those things. If you're a taxpayer, you get benefits from airport security (a plane won't be rammed into the building where you work, your airline stocks won't be affected by another hijacking, etc). If you're a taxpayer without children, you get a benefit from having an educated populace (higher quality of living, better employees/employers, less chance of disaffected populace rioting and burning down your house). If you're a taxpayer with a job, you still benefit from welfare (when you lose your job, again helps reduce the underclass thereby making society more stable, etc).

However, if you take away these helicopter rides, you don't lose anything. This is truly a luxury item.

Andrew2April 4, 2006 11:41 AM

I'm not sure the proper place for the cost of passenger screening lies with the passenger. The point of all this enhanced screening isn't to protect only passengers anymore, it is to protect, well, anyone who could be harmed by a rogue airliner. People who work in tall buildings or buildings that are attractive political targets.

sjmApril 4, 2006 11:44 AM

Bruce Schneier writes:
>From a taxpayer point of view, there
>shouldn't be any helicopter rides from
>Manhattan to JFK: taxpayers in general
>don't benefit from it.

With all due respect, this statement proves far too much. Taxpayers in general do not benefit from ANY flight from A to B. Followed to its conclusion, this argument suggests that flight be prohibited because "taxpayers" do not benefit.

If one invokes the argument that taxpayers benefit from the commerce enabled by flight services, then the argument against the helicopter flights fails.

The fallacy is the notion of a collective called "taxpayers." There is no such entity. I am compelled to pay taxes, but I have almost nothing in common with other victims beyond our shared experience of theft. We have no choice in how much we pay, nor in how the money is used. What benefits me includes flights from Nashville to LA, not flights from NYC to anywhere. I might be conviced to pay for a security fee, but I am given no choice.

The reason the TSA has elected to spend an outrageous amount of money to screen a paltry number of travelers is that government monopolies are incapable of calulating costs and prices. They do not participate in the market economy, where all transactions are voluntary and mutually beneficial. Instead they operate under the government monopoly of compulsion and coercion. Without a market to set prices, the commisars of the TSA are unable to discern when they are spending the resources wisely, and when they are being foolish.

Rothbard and others have shown (http://www.mises.org/rothbard/toward.pdf) that it is impossible to make meaningful calculation regarding the costs and benefits of externalities. What Dr. Schneier is complaining about is a decision that offends his personal view of how TSA resources should be allocated.

I don't disagree that the decision to spend such large sums on a few helicopter passengers is foolish, and clearly there are other options which were apparently not considered. But the only real solution is to put Dr. Schneier in charge of the TSA, a decision that I doubt either he nor the TSA would care to take.

AnonymousApril 4, 2006 11:55 AM

> for $139 you can avoid the drive to the airport

Just wondering... where is this figure comming from ?!

It's much more than that (3 to 500$) as far as I can tell

bobApril 4, 2006 11:56 AM

@mike: The assumption is that anyone coming in on a commercial carrier has been screened. Bugmashers ("little" planes) are not allowed anyplace where an occupant could get into the secure area from. As a matter of fact a lot of times you have to borrow a car from the on-airport facility bugmashers park at, drive completely around the outside of the airport grounds and let them off at the same terminal front door as people who arrived in cars.

But little planes are inherently evil, like handguns; and you wouldnt want someone still under their spell to be allowed into an air terminal without a cooling off period.

another_bruceApril 4, 2006 11:57 AM

stop considering them to be "changing planes" when the helicopter lands at jfk. make them go through the standard security there. that way, the flights remain secure, there is no double standard for rich people, and no need to deploy extra screeners. is this proposal too sensible to ever be implemented?

eMApril 4, 2006 12:11 PM

> The only way to solve this is for the
> government to bill the airline
> passengers for the cost of security
> screening. It wouldn't be much per
> ticket, maybe $15.

Aren't airline passengers already being charged a "September 11th security fee" for this purpose? If it's too low, raise it a few bucks.

Neal LesterApril 4, 2006 12:25 PM

Security screening is a government provided universal service. Because the cost of providing a universal service varies by location, some portions of the system are always subsidizing other portions of the system. When I mail a letter across town, part the $0.39 I pay subsidizes the cost of delivering the mail to Barrow, AK. Helicopter screening is just just an example of this.

If the TSA is providing these helicopter riders a higher level of service then everyone else, then I think the taxpayers certainly have a right to complain about the cost of providing that preference. If the TSA is providing them the same level of service, but it happens to cost more because of the the particular circumstances, that is just inherent in any system that provides services in a variety of settings. This example (Helicopter screening) is really just an outlier in a cost spectrum and is probably insignificant in terms of the overall cost of operating the system.

Making security screening a universal service (an externality to the rest of the aviation system) certainly changes the behavior of people within that system. These new behaviors have advantages and disadvantages. It is of course critical to understand those advantages and disadvantage when deciding whether to continue providing security screening as a universal service. A market based system might very well handle cost outliers like helicopter screening differently then the existing system. However, I doubt that this particular difference is really important enough to sway the decision one way or another. You don't want to design a system based on outliers and exceptions.

bobApril 4, 2006 12:34 PM

@another_bruce: your overlooking the fact that the helicopter flight to the airport - is a commercial flight itself. You could seize THAT aircraft and crash it into something.

WaitAMinuteApril 4, 2006 12:43 PM

Are you certain the "air-taxi" (aka helicopter) passengers don't have to go through normal TSA airport security? There is no link to an original story.

Is the air-taxi helicopter TSA just to secure the helicopters, and not an eventual commercial airline flight?

I would expect that the air-taxi helipad would be at an area of the airport near the FBO (where the light aircraft go). As stated, the helicopter passengers, like light aircraft passengers, would then have to enter the main airport terminal through a non-secured area to get on a commercial airline.

This seems like a simple problem to fix, just eliminate the TSA for the air-taxi service and require the air-taxi passengers to enter the airport main terminal, just like any other passenger on a commercial flight that arrives via taxi (land, air, water, etc.).

Unless the point of the air-taxi (aka helicopter) TSA is to secure the air-taxi service (helicopter and passengers) whether or not they eventually fly a commercial airline.

Mike C.April 4, 2006 12:52 PM

> The only way to solve this is for the
> government to bill the airline
> passengers for the cost of security
> screening. It wouldn't be much per
> ticket, maybe $15.

So, if I choose not to pay the $15, then I can avoid the security lines? ;)

WaitAMinuteApril 4, 2006 12:54 PM

@bob

"your overlooking the fact that the helicopter flight to the airport - is a commercial flight itself. You could seize THAT aircraft and crash it into something."

Ok. You can't be serious. :) Movie-plot threats is a different thread... Using this line of reasoning, a Cessna 310 (twin engine 6 passenger light aircraft), which can be used for "commercial" flights, would also need to have TSA at its point of departure, which could be virtually anywhere, from small airfields or even private airstrips.

ProhiasApril 4, 2006 1:01 PM

Bruce said: "It wouldn't be much per ticket, maybe $15. And it would be much less at major airports, because the economies of scale are so much greater."

I agree that the add on cost will be marginal at bigger airports. Similarly, the add on cost will be much more appreciable at smaller airports, where passenger traffic is low. Air ticket prices are controlled by the airlines so there is most often no penalty to fly to smaller cities. Adding on the screening costs could skew this model. And if the proposal is to split the screening costs across the entire passenger base, then the "marginal cost increase" benefit to fliers between major traffic airports is lost.

In short, causing a non-trivial ticket price increase for travel to and from smaller towns is an issue worth considering carefully.

I also wouldn't extend the cost sharing burden proposal to general air travel, from the elitist helicopter commute setup. The helicopter passengers, being an ultra rich coterie, should take more of the burden even if it means the viability of such a service becomes threatened. Perhaps the best way to handle this is to factor in the screening cost somewhat and adjust the private air license cost to a level that allows the government to subsidize the screening. Achieves the same as charging the helicopter passengers more for screening.

Now don't we pay a few dollars to the airlines per ticket for additional security costs? I thought some of this goes towards screening. But given the sorry state of finances of the large airlines, perhaps everything is one big bail out.

Michael AshApril 4, 2006 1:17 PM

@sjm

'With all due respect, this statement proves far too much. Taxpayers in general do not benefit from ANY flight from A to B. Followed to its conclusion, this argument suggests that flight be prohibited because "taxpayers" do not benefit.'

There's an enormous gulf between "subsidized" and "prohibited" which you're completely missing. This gulf is called "private". All Bruce is saying is that airline security should be funded privately, by adding it to the airport fees that airlines already pay for every passenger they carry. Following it to its conclusion does not give you "all flight should be prohibited", it gives you "all airline passengers should be paying for their own security screening", which is something I, at least, can agree with.

Sky-HoApril 4, 2006 1:24 PM

One of the problems, alluded to by bob but apparently ignored by others is simple to solve. Simply provide drop-off and pick-up locations outside the "secure area", on the curb, so that customers must transit security. The folks are simply using a glorified taxi. No need to make it more complicated than it already is.

If US Helio is implying that their customers will bypass security or even have "special" security set up just for their passengers, then, IMHO, that would be wrong. (I don't think light aircraft pose much of a threat, a la 9-11)

John ThurstonApril 4, 2006 2:19 PM

AG asked: "How many Terrorist has the TSA caught so far anyway?"

I'm sorry, AG. That is a secret.
Knowledge of this number would aid our enemies.

jayhApril 4, 2006 2:27 PM

>>How many Terrorist has the TSA caught so far anyway?

They did attempt to prosecute one woman, who lost her temper angrily whipped off her underwire bra which kept setting of the scanner.---foiling the infamous Victorias Secret bomber.

bobApril 4, 2006 2:46 PM

@sky-ho: What?? You dont think 2,450# aircraft with a "wings rip off" speed of ~170mph and carrying almost 200# of fuel can do much damage? How can you say that, just look at (that moron in) Tampa in '02! No, wait; no one was killed and the lights still worked in the office he hit. Bad example.

OK, there was a thing in NYC in 2001 - completely detroyed 3 huge buildings, one of which they didnt even hit... Oh, wait; those were 600,000# aircraft with 200,000# of fuel moving at 600mph, another bad example.

Well, clamp down on the little ones anyway, cause they have no political power and that way people may be fooled into thinking you are doing something constructive. As for the big ones, just cross your fingers and hope you retire before something can be blamed on you.

bobApril 4, 2006 2:54 PM

@waitaminute: Yup, if its operating under 14 CFR Part 125 or Part 135, then I bet TSA would say they have to approve the pax. And if there is no TSA based on the field, then all you have to do is go out of business.

Just like the "DC-3" airports.

bobApril 4, 2006 2:55 PM

@waitaminute: Besides I am picturing a big 20-pax Sikorsky, not a Hughes 500 or Bell JetRanger.

bobApril 4, 2006 3:06 PM

@waitaminute: Ok, I checked out their site. Its an average of the two; an S-76 configured for 8 pax and 2 crew flying hourly. (So they need to screen 1 person every 7.5 minutes.) But if you crashed it into the Pan Am building, it would leave a mark.

Richard BraakmanApril 4, 2006 3:56 PM

Hmm, I follow sjm's logic. Start with Bruce's statement that it's up to the taxpayers to set the standards, and then the passengers should pay the cost. Well, what standard should the taxpayers set for airline security? The taxpayers have some risk from the existence of air travel, and only a minority benefits from it. Consider that the most secure aircraft is one that doesn't fly. Why should the taxpayers accept a lower standard than that? If your argument is that the taxpayers *do* benefit from the existence of air travel, and should thus permit it, then why should they not subsidize the cost of their own security needs?

Michael AshApril 4, 2006 4:09 PM

The standards for subsidies and permission are vastly different. In a free society, everything should be permitted unless there is a very good reason not to, whereas nothing should be subsidized unless there is a very good reason to.

The reason that taxpayers should allow something which doesn't directly benefit them is because taxpayers wish to live in a free society, and that's what a free society requires. Of course, whether this is true of the US taxpayer is something which is increasingly shrouded in doubt.

sjmApril 4, 2006 4:25 PM

Michael Ash writes:
"There's an enormous gulf between "subsidized" and "prohibited" which you're completely missing. This gulf is called "private". All Bruce is saying is that airline security should be funded privately, by adding it to the airport fees that airlines already pay for every passenger they carry."

I don't find the word "private" in Dr. Schneier's original post, and I am unsure of what is meant by this use of the word.

"Subsidized" in fact means that money is taken by force from one party and given to another. The element of choice is missing.

Dr. Schneier writes that "The only way to solve this is for the government to bill the airline passengers for the cost of security screening. " But as numerous posters have pointed out, the government is already doing exactly that.

The problem is not the collection of the fees, but in the allocation of the resulting money. Dr. Schneier has discovered what he believes to be a poor choice in the use of the money. While I tend to agree with his opinion about the particular decision, the solution cannot be more of the same policy that gave us the problem in the first place: compulsory fees added to ticket prices.

Here is a real example: Today I paid almost exactly $30 for federal taxes, fees, and security charges for a ticket that cost less than $200. I don't care how the loot is divided between various government agencies. Now the question is: should the calculation of these fees have a new dimension, one based on the cost of providing a "service" that I neither need nor want?

Consider two possibilities: the TSA could add an additional $1,000 fee to the helicopter service tickets, and they could undoubtedly produce a spreadsheet or other document to buttress their claims that they are merely recouping their costs. Conversely, they could decide to add zero difference, and simply choose to aggregate all their costs together to justify that result. The second choice is effectively the policy in use by the TSA today.

Which is the "right" choice? There is no choice! The one way that does work, allowing people to choose the level and kind of service they want by freely buying or refusing to buy, that way is verboten. But once you've forbidden free choice, the only question is who is given the power to compel others to abide by his or her decisions.

WaitAMinuteApril 4, 2006 5:07 PM

@Bob

The idea of pax screening for light aircraft is somewhat pointless. In the case of the air-taxi (i.e. S-76 helicopter), at least the one I had seen up close, there is no access to the flight deck from the pax compartment. A pax would have to take control of the helicopter during loading/unloading while on the helipad, by physically removing the pilot/fo through the _exterior_ door. The same is basically true of most light passenger/commercial aircraft, once you are in your seat, there is no moving around (i.e. not a lot of room to stand up, switch seats, etc.). Besides that, as you pointed out, these light aircraft, while they can do some damage, aren't really a threat to most buildings and other structures. So other than killing those on the aircraft and perhaps a few others through collateral damage, there isn't much of a threat there.

In fact, I would expect that having TSA at locations like an air-taxi helipad, away from a main airport terminal, would create greater risk in the greater "secure perimeter" that TSA attempts to create. The more locations the TSA has to secure, the more chance of creating a potential "hole" in that security perimeter.

Again, the simplest solution is just to not have TSA at air-taxi helipads and to have the air-taxi passengers go through normal TSA screening at the main airport terminal, just like everyone else.

I don't see the problem with this approach. Commercial "air-taxi" passengers that arrive via light commercial aircraft (helicopter, ME aircraft, etc.), such as the 8-10 pax puddle jumpers that arrive/depart via FBO instead of the main airport terminal, simply go through normal TSA screening at the airport main terminal.

RogerApril 4, 2006 7:27 PM

> The only way to solve this is for the government to bill the airline passengers for the cost of security screening. It wouldn't be much per ticket, maybe $15. And it would be much less at major airports, because the economies of scale are so much greater.

I agree that US Helicopters should be charged for this (and pass on the cost to their passengers) -- especially as they are advertising it as one of the benefits of their service (i.e., get your screening done discreetly, far from the hoi polloi, then breeze quickly through the airport). But I think you are greatly overestimating that cost.

In general the cost is considerably less than $15 per passenger even at small airports. In fact the average throughout the US works out to be under $2 per passenger per flight.

According to their press release, US Helicopters will be carrying 500 passengers per day, weekdays only (although this must be an estimate, since they have only been operating a few weeks). And the TSA says they will be spending $560,000 at that heliport this year. That works out to just $4.30 per passenger. (Further nearly half that $560,000 seems to include one-off equipment costs which should only be included at the amortisation rate, so this is a very conservative estimate.)

By the way, the $139 fare is a special introductory offer. The normal fare will be $159.

LApril 4, 2006 8:17 PM

Neal Lester: Your "government provided universal service" example of the post is amusing, because the constant rate system exists because it's cheaper than the administration of multiple rates.

Nolan EakinsApril 4, 2006 9:10 PM

There's still the question of what's the point? I take a bomb onto a helicopter and blow it up. Big loss. I could also highjack the helicopter and crash it into something. It can't be any worse than stealing a cab and crashing it into something. Shoot, I can even have a bomb with me in my stolen cab.

I guess one conclusion is that all cab passengers need to be screened before they get in the cab, or the second conclusion is that this screening is pointless.

TimHApril 4, 2006 9:45 PM

"Security screening is a government provided universal service".... for which every passenger is charged a uniform fee by TA.

So how come 'premium' passengers are allowed to jump the lines by the airlines?

RonKApril 5, 2006 2:48 AM

Let me try to hybridize this thread with the movie-plot thread. I see that most of the discussion is dealing with impacting the helicopter with something. What about coming on board with a pressurized canister of anthrax or plutonium dust and a drilling tool, and (after overpowering the passengers and flight crew) using the normal flight of the helicopter to help distribute the dangerous material over a larger area?

bobApril 5, 2006 9:34 AM

@Waitaminute: In the C-310 you mentioned earlier, the pax are sitting right behind/beside the pilot and could deal with him/her quite easily. In the S-76, like you said, you would be limited to taking control of the aircraft at the terminal before boarding. I picture this is as the roof of a building in Manhattan, so its just you and the 1-3 guys with you, the other pax, the 2 crew and maybe a walmart style greeter for the airline. If your team weren't screened, either of these sound like a pretty soft target.

Now, either of these techniques would justify TSA screening, except for the fact that light aircraft make lousy WMDs. Look at what a B-25 did NOT do to the Empire State Building in '45; and thats more than double the mass and substantially faster than today's light airplanes. The problem is that the US government has declared light airplanes to be enemies of the revolution (oops, wrong govt; sorry) I mean security threats.

But the solution is to shut down the TSA altogether and spend the money on security instead. As @Nolan alludes to, any person in any vehicle anywhere COULD be a threat so screening every moving vehicle everywhere in the country everytime it moves would be a Herculean task.

This makes trying to eliminate incoming ICBM warheads in re-entry phase as opposed to boost phase look easy. Not only do you have 10x as many real targets, you have decoys and a much shorter time window in which to operate.

Besides, OBL is rich - he doesnt need LIGHT aircraft, he could just BUY REAL airliners, the (US) desert is full of retired ones going for a song. He could even fly a couple of for-profit trips to get the purchase price back and fund future operations, cause I dont imagine he will be performing world-class maintenance or worried about turbine temps or second stage compressor pressure limits. And the biggest expense in an airline is fuel; there are plenty of people where he comes from who would give it to him gratis.

Actually the BEST scenario would be if every terrorist in the world would come to the US, buy a new Cessna (Mooney, Cirrus, etc) single and crash it into the nearest nuclear containment building. The damage would be negligible, the terrorists would be either dead or neutralized and the boost to the US economy would be fantastic (especially for Mooney or Piper, they could use a few gratuitous sales right now).

OrlandoApril 5, 2006 5:32 PM

Nolan Eakins wrote:
"There's still the question of what's the point? I take a bomb onto a helicopter and blow it up. Big loss. I could also highjack the helicopter and crash it into something. It can't be any worse than stealing a cab and crashing it into something. Shoot, I can even have a bomb with me in my stolen cab."

How about if you crash your heli into a plane? You'll do a lot more damage than a cab, especially if the plane is just taking off..

bobApril 6, 2006 6:45 AM

@nolan: True, you could take out even a 747 that way, but now two attack vectors have to work 1)siezing the heli, 2)crashing the 747; you'd probably be better off just trying to bomb the 747 directly. The problem with this (from a terrorist point of view) is that its been trumped. If you just kill a planeload of pax, you are going to get headlines for a couple of days, but not terror. 9/11 raised the bar (the only good thing I can see come out of it) and 'merely' destroying a single plane without using it as a WMD will probably be seen by the public as a successful uprising of pax against hijackers.

Now if you crashed the heli into the airport's fuel dump; that could be spectacular. Might not even kill anybody besides yourself, but should get bigger headlines cause its never been done before. And of course it would immediately raise the price of oil.

But then again you would probably have a better chance of success with a large commercial all terrain vehicle; Oshkosh makes a bunch of different types, and it should be child's play to hijack one of those. (You could even steal one an airport's "Crash truck", excellent irony using a fire truck to start a fire. Shades of Ray Bradbury.)

Once you have one, bust through the boundary fence and drive it into the tank farm directly. You could even weld a big ram on the front a la Elliot Ness and keep attacking and maybe get all the tanks before a spark set something off. If you get them all, you win. Even if a security force gets to you, when they start shooting; they might ignite it.

RogerApril 6, 2006 9:22 PM

It is remarkable that we attribute infinite powers of imagination and reasoning to terrorists, then show such complete failure ourselves. Half of this thread, apart from completely ignoring Bruce's point about the effects of security externalities, consists of reasoning thus: "The most recent terrorist attack in the US consisted of hijacking aircraft in order to crash them into things. Therefore airport security is about preventing the hijack of aircraft for use as missiles". (Possibly followed by "But helicopters are too light to do serious damage".)

Ahem. It is pretty obvious that airport security consists of a great deal more than preventing the hijack of aircraft for use as missiles. For a start, the number one issue in airport security is not terrorism but crime, especially smuggling (drugs, cash, stolen art, antiquities, endangered species, people), and smugglers could certainly afford to take a helicopter flight if it helped them to evade security. Further, even when we focus on terrorists, we do not need to attribute them with vast mental powers to see that they have rather more strategies available than simply crashing planes into targets. Consider: the helicopter taxi service caters principally to wealthy, powerful, influential people. The sort of people who might be targets for assassination, whether by terrorists, organised crime, or "lone nuts". I could mention half a dozen more scenarios but then we would be doing movie plots.

WaitAMinuteApril 7, 2006 10:52 AM

@Roger

"airport security consists of a great deal more than preventing the hijack of aircraft for use as missiles. For a start, the number one issue in airport security is not terrorism but crime"

Wait a minute, we are talking about taxpayer paid TSA security screening at airports (in this particular case, air-taxi helipads).

What does that have to do with detecting or preventing crime? The increase in TSA operations since 9/11, funded by the Feds and the DHS, was to defend against _terrorism_.

I don't ever recall a briefing where the TSA/DHS has said the primary focus of increasing TSA airport screenings (and rebuilding most airport screeing areas) over the past 5 years, was to detect and prevent crime. It has always been about defending against the threat of terrorism. We already have a police force for detecting and preventing crime, we don't need all this TSA invasiveness for that.

RogerApril 10, 2006 1:20 AM

@WaitAMinute:

Sorry, the TSA is _not_ primarily or completely a counterterrorism organisation. While the TSA was created (not expanded) after September 2001, and counterterrorism has received more emphasis than it did for its predecessor organisations, the TSA's mission is (and I quote):

"The Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce."

Terrorism, you will note, is not even mentioned here. But in the expansion of this mission in the TSA Strategic Plan, it expands this to specifically include both crime and terrorism:

"Our mission is to protect the nation’s transportation system [...] from terrorist attack and criminal activity."

It is thus the duty of the TSA to provide an integrated overall security policy, not focus on one or another particular threat. This is a point which Bruce often makes. It makes very little sense having an agency responsible for, say, preventing terrorists from assassinating VIPs, with one set of measures aimed at preventing that, and another agency responsible for, say, preventing criminals assassinating organised crime witnesses, with a whole other set of protective measures, if an overall integrated policy can provide protection against both of those and a wide range of other threats besides.

In this case, searching passenger luggage for contraband is a security measure which is both inexpensive and (IF it was effective, which is a whole other issue) simultaneously protects against almost every threat to air transport security except "people smuggling".

> We already have a police force for detecting and preventing crime,

The are several difficulties with this view. Firstly, and most importantly, there is a lot more to "preventing crime" than police work. Crime prevention encompasses everything from teaching young people to respect others, through the standard protocols for handling social and financial transactions, good environmental design, and on up to locking up at night, burglar alarms, and police response as a last resort. Only the "last resort" step requires the extraordinary powers conferred by police authority, and most of what the TSA does do not require those powers and so should not have them.

Secondly, many of the transportation systems in question are and have always been under US Federal jurisdiction and thus are not covered at all by state or county police. Also transportation systems by their nature tend to cross jurisdictional boundaries and thus are often best served by dedicated services. Now, there ARE US Federal law enforcement agencies providing such services to US interstate and international transportation, namely Immigration and Customs, and (more controversially) the Federal Air Marshal Service. However FAMS is _part_ of the TSA, which rather makes your objection moot.

> we don't need all this TSA invasiveness for that.

The thing is, of course, that most of what the TSA does actually isn't all that invasive. I mean, walking through a magnetometer arch, big deal. But every now and again they screw up and cause unnecessary offence. IMHO their biggest sustained kablooie so far (as against a one-off gaffe) is the shoe thing. Making people take off their shoes is just undignified enough to be degrading and annoying, yet not quite so obviously offensive that they would get sued for it, or think to do it in a more respectful manner. Maybe they weren't taught to respect others...

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