Cost of the U.S. No-Fly List

Someone did the analysis:

As will be analyzed below, it is estimated that the costs of the no-fly list, since 2002, range from approximately $300 million (a conservative estimate) to $966 million (an estimate on the high end). Using those figures as low and high potentials, a reasonable estimate is that the U.S. government has spent over $500 million on the project since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Using annual data, this article suggests that the list costs taxpayers somewhere between $50 million and $161 million a year, with a reasonable compromise of those figures at approximately $100 million.

Posted on February 3, 2009 at 1:01 PM58 Comments


TSA Admin February 3, 2009 1:20 PM

I agree with that figure, but more important- think of all the background checks and physicial verifications needed to verify.

Could the private sector done it for less with a Oracle database and private funds?

M Sullivan February 3, 2009 1:22 PM

Presumably that is the cost of initially creating and maintaining the list. But what of the cost in terms of missed flights, etc. suffered by innocent people because of that list. I am willing to bet that it is many times the cost cited.

A. Brit. February 3, 2009 1:35 PM

Sebastian, speaking English does not make a man American. We the English have a prior claim to the language.

That being said, we are often tarred with the same brush thanks to the idiots who govern us.

I wonder how much money the US has lost in missed tourism reciepts due to it’s lousy PR record with aeroplane passengers.

HJohn February 3, 2009 1:38 PM

There are over 750 million passengers who fly per year, which, taking the 100 million, is about 13 cents every time someone actually goes through security directed at the ones who can’t fly. That’s too much buck for not enough bang (pun intended), money much of which would be better directed elsewhere.

I can see where the no-fly list could be more of a strategic tool for terrorists–if i was a prospective terrorists, I would use my real name and real credentials to fly on a regular basis. Every time I flew, it may as well be a letter from the government telling me I’m not on their radar.

Roy February 3, 2009 1:39 PM

Why not do the obvious and replace it with a list of people for whom there are outstanding warrants? These people don’t get to fly because they are wanted by the police.

The idea of somebody being too dangerous to allow on an airliner but not dangerous enough to take into custody is so perverted that anyone who advocates such action cannot be allowed to remain at large.

Clive Robinson February 3, 2009 1:44 PM

Ok those are potentialy reasonable cost guestimates.

Any body care to make a guestimate on benifts?

Or are we looking at sunk costs?

D. February 3, 2009 2:01 PM

If Al Qaeda’s strategic goal was to waste the resources of a (the) super power (or western nations in general), you’d have to say that they’ve been fantastically successful. (Iraq had what do with Al Qaeda?) Add all the legitmacy that being USA enemy #1 garners, the toppling of a government in Iraq that liked Al Qaeda (or any other islamist group) almost as little as the USA did, and the image and morale bruising that the low-road via torture brings…

You’d have to say Al Qaeda has been unbelievably successful. Bin Laden’s ambitions are bigger still, but he’s already gotten closer than he could have expected.

Clive Robinson February 3, 2009 2:47 PM

@ D.,

“You’d have to say Al Qaeda has been unbelievably successful.”

You could also say 9as several political commentators have) that Osama Bin Laden was the most influential person of the last 8 years.

Which must be more than a little galling for the Bush clan and their cronies both in the US and UK.

But it is their own fault they did build him up as the “demon spawn commanding the legions from hell” and label him as the world’s “most wanted” and then totaly fail to get close to stoping him in any measurable way…

But I guess he served his purpose in lining the pockets of certain of the chosen clique.

charlie February 3, 2009 2:52 PM

Hjohn: There has been a huge drop off in Japanese, French and German tourists over the Bush-era — partly due in part to stupid visitor policies. UK, Irish, and Spanish visitors have increased.

Net, there are few tourists in the US than before 2001, but it hard to quantify how much of that is due to stupid policies.

derf February 3, 2009 3:14 PM

With the current spending frenzy in DC, I don’t expect this to decrease anytime soon. Change indeed.

Pat Cahalan February 3, 2009 3:19 PM

@ Roy

Why not do the obvious and replace it with a
list of people for whom there are outstanding

There’s a huge namespace collision problem there.

Davi Ottenheimer February 3, 2009 3:34 PM

“there are few tourists in the US than before 2001”

…including US tourists in the US.

Wonder what would happen if SOX was applied to the country itself as well as public corporations.

Remember Bush’s words when he signed SOX into law: “And this law says to every American: there will not be a different ethical standard for corporate America than the standard that applies to everyone else.”

Nevermind transparency, etc.; imagine just trying to account for disparities between the predicted and actual costs of recent government “investments”.

Clive Robinson February 3, 2009 3:38 PM

@ Hjohn,


Yawn worthy as the no-fly list is it costs a considerable sum of money to run.

Now as a person who has claimed in the past a fondnes for “audit” you will apreciate that the little known about the no-fly list sugests it is highly poluted and getting worse by the day.

The question then arises at what point does the level of polution of the no-fly list render it not just inefective but actually counter productive.

You could then also go on to say at what point it is actually harmfull to the interests of the US and it’s people.

I suspect but do not know that it has been beyond these two points for a number of years.

If Osama bin Laden and the suposed aliance “Al Qaeda” have achived this with little or no real effort on their behalf then it is highly relevent to the worth of the no-fly list as is knowledge of those profiting by it’s existance.

If you disagre with the notions that the no-fly list is overly costly and poluted to the point of activly harming US interests then by all means say so, even if you have no hard evidence, you reasoning for a differing view point would be of interest.

HJohn February 3, 2009 3:40 PM

@Pat Calahan: “There’s a huge namespace collision problem there.”

I would have to agree. As lousy as it would be to be told one can’t fly because their name had a collision, imaging getting stuffed and cuffed because of it.

HJohn February 3, 2009 3:44 PM

@Clive: ” you disagre with the notions that the no-fly list is overly costly and poluted to the point of activly harming US interests then by all means say so, even if you have no hard evidence, you reasoning for a differing view point would be of interest.”

As I’ve said above, even on this very thread, it is a waste of money.

Worse, as I also said above, and I consider this evidence just because of how the process works, if I were a wannabe terrorist, I would use my credentials to fly. If I get on the plane, it’s as good as a letter from the government saying I’m not on their radar. So it is worse than a waste of money, it is dangerous.

Insofar as my yawn, it was more a chuckle of amusement at how anything can be remote tied to the former president whose name I best not speak sets off a firestorm of comments and off-topic rants. Iraq has little to do with the no-fly list.

dob February 3, 2009 3:48 PM

@JHohn: “Iraq has little to do with the no-fly list.”

Except insofar as they were both inept responses by the Bush administration to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Jon February 3, 2009 3:54 PM

@ A.Brit.: I wonder how much money the US has lost in missed tourism reciepts due to it’s lousy PR record with aeroplane passengers.

As of the end of 2006 is was “$94 billion in lost tourist spending, nearly 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in forgone tax revenue – and all while the dollar has kept dropping [which should have made travel to teh US more attractive].”

HJohn February 3, 2009 3:58 PM

@dob: “Except insofar as they were both inept responses by the Bush administration to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.”

I’m not going to be drawn into a debate about Iraq here.

My position on the waste and dangers of the no fly list is above.

WilliamB February 3, 2009 6:10 PM

@Roy: “Why not do the obvious and replace it with a list of people for whom there are outstanding warrants? These people don’t get to fly because they are wanted by the police.”

I view the questions as: was there a degree of flight by arrest warrant subjects, previous to 9/11, to justify the maintaining of the “do not fly” list solely for that purpose? I would guess not. Why? There was no proposal for such a mechanism, previous to 9/11.

mitchus February 3, 2009 6:16 PM

I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here, but IF (big if) this stops one person per year from hijacking a plane and flying into a skyscraper, it’s definitely worth the 100 million. Heck, if it stopped one person since its inception it’s worth every penny. The problem of course is we’ll never know if it did.

moo February 3, 2009 7:12 PM

@mitchus: I strongly disagree. 500 million dollars is too much money to piss away stopping one person, or even stopping a passenger airliner from deliberately flying into a building.

After all, that has only happened twice since the dawn of aviation, and (since the passengers are now much more likely to put up fierce active resistance) it will probably never happen again.

If you want to do something useful with 500 million dollars, use it to hire better teachers and buy better textbooks for your elementary and high-school kids. Use it to give scholarships to bright kids from low-income neighborhoods who can’t afford post-secondary education on their own. Use it to give tax breaks to people who start their own businesses. Use it for just about anything else, and the net good done will be much greater than the net good done by the No-Fly list.

After all, the No-Fly list does a lot of harm by preventing legitimate travellers who happen to have cursed names, from boarding their flights. It would have to do tonnes of good to outweigh that harm, even if it cost zero dollars (which it obviously doesn’t).

mitchus February 4, 2009 2:17 AM

@moo: I hope you’re not serious. Are you actually saying that it would have been ok not to spend that money even if another plane were crashed into a building? Not counting the huge cost in human suffering and morale, what do you think the lives of say 1000 people are worth? At 500 million that’s 500k a pop of investment. People in a high-rise are typically worth much more. (Of course I mean in terms of purely economic value, not human value, which is the same for everyone.)

charles johnson February 4, 2009 3:13 AM

sh*t if you tried to hijack a plane in the US these days you’d be lucky if your major body parts weren’t immediately disassembled. You’d be lucky if your limbs weren’t torn from your body within 45 seconds. By the time the plane landed you’d just be red stuff on the carpet.

Cannonball Jones February 4, 2009 3:32 AM

@mitchus: I’d have to side with moo here and say yeah, even if it transpired that another plane crashed into a building it would have been right not to spend the money because it was such a vanishingly unlikely occurrence. There aren’t unlimited funds to spread around so we have to spend them where they’re likely to do the most good for the most people. That means not supporting money sinks like the no-fly list any longer.

We can improve airline security with much cheaper measures, like they already did with strengthening the cockpit doors. That kind of measure has much more effect and much lower cost in terms of money and liberties than the list .

Clive Robinson February 4, 2009 4:24 AM

@ mitchus,

“what do you think the lives of say 1000 people are worth?”

Honestly ask an insurance actuary in the country you are in, then look at court mandated payments.

But about ten times the persons anual income is what insurance companies aim to pay plus an inflation adjustment (unless their is a specific policy otherwise).

There is an assumption of existing insurance and either a pension payout at the end of your economic life or no dependents at the begining.

What an insurance company does not like is male 30’s two or more young children and mid level or higher executive position and clear indication of liability on behalf of the insured…

Judges tend to be a bit more generous but again it’s usually based on net economic worth and dependents.

bob February 4, 2009 7:17 AM

You guys dont get it at all: Bin Laden is in poor health. We are trying to kill him by making him laugh himself to death!

Calum February 4, 2009 7:33 AM


The problem with your argument is it has no logical stopping point. There is a risk of someone dying somewhere sometime that can be mitigated by spending money? Let’s do it.

Road traffic, the local equivalent of Slashdot’s car analogy, is a good place to look at. If you drive up and down any road, anywhere, you will see thigns that could be done to make it safer: better signage, grippy brown tar, crash barriers, and so forth. There’s a reason it isn’t done everywhere.

mitchus February 4, 2009 7:37 AM

@jones&clive: Taking an estimation of ten times annual income, average income in Manhattan is around 100k (note that the income of people in the WTC buildings was probably much higher). That leaves you with a dollar cost of one billion. So the point I’m trying to make is that IF the list has avoided ONE incident since its inception then it has more than paid out even on a very basic economic level. And that’s not counting costs of a plummeting stock market, loss of productivity and shock and dismay accross the country.

I just wanted to call attention to the fact that while paranoid security in air traffic seems like a waste, it might be because it works (and hence seemingly the risk of an incident is vanishingly small). Of course I agree wholeheartedly that if there are better, cheaper measures which achieve the same thing, they should be favored.

mitchus February 4, 2009 7:46 AM

@calum: Actually, I think road traffic and air traffic differ very wildly: incidents in road traffic happen continually, and the effectiveness of safety measures can thus be calculated accurately (twenty-six percent reduction in injuries since adding the stop sign). Thus the policy maker can use a rather precise number-of-signs to fractured-spines ratio, to choose a number of signs which is within his budget and consistent with his other spendings.

The problem with air traffic is that the effectiveness of measures is immensely difficult to estimate. The cost of an incident however is enormous to justify (in my opinion) certain measures, even if their efficiency is mostly conjecture.

Jacson February 4, 2009 9:27 AM


Last December, I flew to US, and I say that, if TSA or wathever who decides this, don’t change the procedures to fly, we (my family) won’t go to US. Seriously, I know that some actions were needed after 9/11, but this is crazyness.

Well, my mother and my wife got embarrased. And it’s so effective… US will continue loose money with this practices (philosophy). If that money were spent on inteligence (envolving another countries/agencies) it could prove more effective.

(sorry about my bad english =)

bob February 4, 2009 10:21 AM

let’s not forget the enormous loss of airline business from lost customers. many, including myself, just don’t fly anymore because the TSA and airline ‘security’ idiocy is just too infuriating.

Nostromo February 4, 2009 10:32 AM

That’s a huge underestimate of the costs, because it’s only the cost to the government. Most of the costs are borne by the victims (the 90% of people on the no-fly list who aren’t terrorists).

Terry Cloth February 4, 2009 10:41 AM

@mitchus: “Are you actually saying that it would have been ok not to spend that money even if another plane were crashed into a building?”

Yup. One thing that isn’t being factored in here is freedom. How much is freedom from hassle for millions (billions?) of people each year? If you want to be free, somebody’s gonna die (see U.S. Revolution [1770s, not 1860s], WWII).

I truly believe that if you could prove it would return the country to the values of the First Amendment for 20 years, I’d be willing to lose my life. More to the point, to move the country toward the First Amendment, I’m more than willing to take a one in 100,000/year chance of dying. (Calculated from 300,000,000 U.S. population, 3,000 dead at the World Trade Center, one crash per year.)

Get rid of the no-fly list.

George February 4, 2009 11:29 AM

The real problem is that “security” measures the Bush administration enacted in reaction are intentionally impervious to any rational cost-benefit analysis. The actual values for both the costs and the benefits are classified (for National Security reasons), so any attempted analysis is a matter of pure speculation. And a spray of Fear is all that’s necessary to instantly neutralize anyone who is too persistent about questioning the cost and benefit. The administration is Doing Everything Possible to Protect America, nearly all of which has to be done in strict secrecy to avoid aiding the enemy. That fact, if repeated often enough, should be all the analysis that is necessary and appropriate for the public.

What’s needed is transparency, and a willingness to evaluate the effectiveness, cost, and cost-effectiveness of security measures. The Bush administration was unwilling to allow that (it wasn’t necessary, since that administration considered itself infallible). Obama has made hopeful statements about transparency which, if he actually follows through on them, should begin to solve many problems. But it remains to be seen whether he actually will follow through on his promises.

Anonymous February 4, 2009 12:16 PM

@bob/jacson: Good point.

@nostromo: If you read the article, the cost you speak of is estimated under the “False Positives” heading.

@terry: Interesting and surprising position. You are willing to trade in the hassle of security checks for the hassle of dying (or witnessing) a gruesome untimely death. I suppose that’s one definition of freedom.

Dave X February 4, 2009 3:24 PM

@mitchus: “Are you actually saying that it would have been ok not to spend that money even if another plane were crashed into a building?”

Yes. Spending money on the no-fly list would not have changed possibility of crashing another plane into a building. Anyone, terrorists included, can find out if the NFL would stop them by spending $50 on a short-hop flight–if they can print their boarding pass, they’re free to fly.

The NFL is a huge waste of money, especially compared to lots of other things that could actually save lives.

Jon February 4, 2009 4:20 PM

@ Samsam: “Actually, it has all happened before, and it shall happen again…”

What moo actually said was “stopping a passenger airliner from deliberately flying into a building”

The ‘deliberately’ is key. The plance that flew into the ESB was an accident. There was a plane that flew into a building in Italy shortly after 9/11, but that was a light a/c, and IIRC it’s not clear that it wasn’t an accident too.

Jason February 4, 2009 4:57 PM

The no-fly list is what is being debated, not the efficacy of the TSA in general.

The no-fly list is bloated and extremely prone to false-positives since more than one person can have the same name. And, there is no established process for getting your name removed from the list.

The no-fly list is a waste of money and should be scrapped and replaced with something that might actually work.

Is the cost of harassing 9999 Mike Jones’s who have done nothing wrong worth it for the one guy who used the name four aliases ago?

With the dollar down, tourists should be streaming to America. Thanks to the hassle and fear generated by the TSA, it’s dropping.

George February 4, 2009 6:36 PM

@Jason: “With the dollar down, tourists should be streaming to America. Thanks to the hassle and fear generated by the TSA, it’s dropping.”

There’s another factor at work here: myopia. The people who continually add names to the list aren’t concerned about the costs, the effect on tourism, the possibility of innocent people with the same or similar names getting needlessly harassed, or anything else. It’s not their concern.

Their job is to add names to the list. Their performance evaluation and career advancement is based on a continual increase in the number of names shown on a monthly PowerPoint presentation to their bosses. They (and all their bosses and boss’s bosses up the chain) are rewarded for adding names to the list, which somehow has become institutionally equated with “increased protection of the Homeland.” And behind it all is the Fear that they’ll be held accountable if someone whose name isn’t on the list commits a terrorist act. So they have to keep adding names to the list to cover themselves.

With this bureaucratic myopia, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a large (and continually expanding) list of names actually does equate with “increased protection of the Homeland.” There is merely the unquestioned assumption that it does. So they keep adding names to the list– and their bosses and bosses’ bosses make PowerPoint charts showing the metric that translates into “we made the Homeland 27.6527% safer this month.” And nobody in Authority ever questions that assumption because they don’t want to be the one who gets the blame for cutting back on the “increasing protection” should a terrorist act occur.

Terry Cloth February 7, 2009 4:06 PM

I predict analyses like this one will have less affect in times to come because we’re getting used to discussions which include the value trillion'', and we adjust spending bills by multiple billions of dollars.A million here, a million there” no longer amounts to “real money.” Who cares about the TSA’s no-fly list?

Terry Cloth February 7, 2009 4:17 PM

@Anonymous at February 4, 2009 12:16: “I suppose that’s one definition of freedom.”

And neither original nor new. I commend to you one Mr. Jefferson:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

The Last "John Wayne" May 18, 2009 11:25 PM

I have a question for all of you bitching about the cost. How much is you mother’s or father’s or your child’s life worth to you? Even the smallest chance of ending the threat is worth it to me.

Chris Burd July 2, 2009 11:09 PM

The No fly list is ridiculous. My wife is on the no fly list because of her surname. My wife is as much a terrorist as I am bill gates. They waste our money on things that don’t work. The thing that you have to remember is that it doesn’t prevent crap. If a terrorist wanted to get on a plane I would think they would no about a no fly list and get a fake ID. More buracucracy at work and more money beeing spent on another frivilous trivial pursuit. Maybe if all those people are on the no fly list they should research the people that are on there and get it over with.

xxxxxxxxxxxxx January 8, 2010 4:56 PM

I actually was able to get on the TSA database and delete my name off the no-fly list!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx January 8, 2010 7:54 PM

Anyone who wants to post a response, is it fraud to fly after taking myself off the no-fly list?

Beyonce Knowles January 11, 2010 5:46 PM

I understand at airports they’re supposed to have traffic light types of registery, green means you may board, yellow means caution extra screening, and red means no-fly list:(

adam smith March 19, 2010 3:05 AM

I haven’t been on a plane in 20 years. I actually hate flying, so I could care less about the not flying part, having been on dozens of planes and helicopters when I was younger. I’m also one with a record (nothing violent), and with bad credit. Combine that with the fact that I am rather outspoken online, especially in criticizing the right, I’m sure whenever I do eventually go to travel, it will be an interesting experience. If I get stopped, I suppose I will have to deal with it then. Hopefully this administration will do something about it. The thing that amazes me is that none of these rules would have stopped the 9-11 attacks. From what I understand those terrorists were here legally and followed all the proper procedures to fly, so if you can’t prevent them, how is targeting American citizens going to help? And the idea that anyone who exercises their First Amendment voice is a potential terrorist ready to attack their own government is disgusting.

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