Why Do Rich White Guys Get a Special Line for Airport Security?

Michael Lind has a silly screed in Salon about elite security lines, beginning with the claim that “[s]ecurity checks were one of America’s most democratic places — until rich passengers got their own speedy lines.” (HT: Arthur N.)

Now, the argument isn’t quite as bad as David Post’s, since the author recognizes that the security lines he’s lambasting aren’t even run by the government.

But I think among the histrionics and juxtaposing of rich versus poor, it’s worth remembering:

  • “The Poor” on the whole aren’t buying airline tickets and suffering through airport security in large numbers. Airport security itself is largely the plight of middle and upper-middle classes.

  • “The Rich” – at least the really rich that class warriors like to heap scorn on – don’t go through airport security either, they’re more likely to fly private.

  • Elite security lines aren’t predominantly the domain of passengers buying paid first class tickets, either. They’re frequent flyers, going through the checkpoint scores of times each year. Which means that people going through these lines likely spend more time waiting at TSA than the average non-frequent flyer going through the ‘regular’ line. Why focus on how much time one person spends on a given day in line versus how much time they spend in total in that line?

The next phase of premium security lines is “Pre-check” which will offer expedited screening mostly to… airline frequent flyers. Because the airlines already know a great deal about them, their travel patterns, how much they pay for tickets, even non-travel purchase behavior.

Airport security isn’t supposed to be about shared sacrifice (although it’s the frequent flyers who pay the most in security and aviation taxes and are most inconvenienced by security over the course of a year). It’s supposed to be about security, which means focusing resources on threats not spreading out resources to investigate everyone equally, regardless of threat. Can we expect even greater histrionics about pre-check? Michael Lind offers a preview:

These “trusted traveler” systems will not make America safer. Their unacknowledged purpose is to create yet another area of American society that is privatized and segregated by class, to the benefit of the mostly white economic overclass.

To the extent that it’s only frequent flyers that get to opt out of security theatre (taking off shoes, taking out liquids), we’re probably even less likely to ever get rid of it entirely, since the infrequent flyers are an even more dispersed interest than regular travelers, there’s little individual incentive for such folks to push for change. And that is certainly a downside to reducing the inconvenience of only the most inconvenienced individuals.

For a better-informed discussion of airport security, The Economist holds a debate on airport security between Bruce Schneier and Kip Hawley.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well put. If I had read that quoted article, at first glance I probably would have thought there was some truth to it. But you took the time to evaluate the actual demographics of the situation, and *proved* it completely wrong.

  2. This guy has the same socialist attitude that results in food and housing rationing and lower standards of quality because everyone must be equal. Well, not everyone’s equal. As long as we all have the opportunity to succeed financially, the opportunity to travel often or buy an expensive ticket, it makes sense to provide additional benefits for those who are willing to pay extra.

  3. The Salon article just comes across as another whiny piece about how the world isn’t equal…such is life. And bring in the whole 99% movement doesn’t really help its cause.

    However, I think your argument about looking at total time spent in security vs. time spent on a particular day doesn’t really mean much. You could ask the same question on the other side, why not look at total time spent in security per trip/day vs. overall? From the everything should be equal perspective (not that I agree with it), why should you spend less time in security for today’s trip just because you took a lot of other trips too? Although from the airline’s perspective, they have an incentive to treat their valuable customers better and incentivize them to fly more on them. All these little benefits add up, between free bags, faster security, etc.

    As for his suggestion of an Elite Citizen card, I actually think that’s a great idea! 🙂 In all seriousness, allowing people to pay more to skip lines is a perfectly appropriate aspect of the free market…those who value their time more for non-waiting activities vs waiting in line should certain have an option to buy their way out of a line. As Scottrick mentioned, as long as we all have the opportunity to succeed, and those who succeed pay their share of the social burden (i.e. more taxes, which does not currently appear to be the case), then I don’t see how you can complain about the inequity of this security line situation. After all, we’re not a socialist country (at least not completely).

  4. A lot of cognitive dissonance both in Gary’s post and the responses.

    Gary seems to switch between the issue of elites getting faster, shorter lines (which appears to be the point of the original article) and their being subject to less security screening overall (“not spreading out resources to investigate everyone equally”).

    Of course, the most likely place for a threat on a plane to originate is in the first class cabin, closer to the cockpit, where there’s more privacy and fewer passengers to interfere. In fact, that’s exactly what happened on 9/11. A perfectly logical argument could be made to subject first class to _more_ security screening.

    In reality, no one knows where the next attack will come from. An appropriate security system would subject everyone to thorough scrutiny or, if that’s not practical, would subject a percentage of all classes of passengers to the same level of scrutiny. Creating a lower-security pathway onto the plane (if that’s what Gary is really suggesting) is obviously folly. The bad guys are just bad — not stupid (well, not _all_ of them).

    While Gary thinks it’s silly to invoke “histrionics” of making this a rich / poor issue, several commenters suggest that that is _exactly_ what’s at work, proposing that anyone should be able to purchase their way out of a line. That’s actually a reasonable (and common) situation — expedited service being available in many, many circumstances — but let’s not pretend that it’s not a case of different lines by ability to pay.

    (I also note parenthetically that I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the same people who believe they should have priority screening are also those complaining the loudest when someone buys an upgrade out from underneath them on United.)

    There are cases, however, in which people should unquestionably NOT be able to buy their way to superior service. The justice system is one, the military another. I would argue that an issue like airport security is more similar to those than a line in a gas station someplace.

  5. Gary switches between those issues because they are both mentioned in the article. The original article itself goes from talking about how airport security lines have a 1%/99% separation, to how the TSA expedited pre-screening program is another example of that. Both the article and Gary’s post probably could’ve done a better job of making the transition to that point clearer (or more distinct), but I guess they chose not to.

  6. I guess after further thought, elites being at the front isn’t quite an open market situation where people have been given the option of paying to be at the front of the line. It’s an arbitrary re-ordering by the owner of the line (the airline). But there’s other things in society this person could go after. Should hybrid vehicles not be allowed in HOV lanes, because only wealthier people can afford them? That’s just one example.

    In either the bybrid or security line case, I’d argue you’re not really looking at the ultra wealthy. I’m sure there’s many people who are “just” middle class that fly frequently for their job. They’re certainly not poor…and it’s the same as those who buy hybrids, there’s quite a few people out there that can afford one of those.

  7. Please explain why first class ticket holders or frequent fliers should get to jump to the front of the line, even though all passengers are paying the identical security fee and facility charge. Are you OK with the mother of teenage boys getting to jump to the front of the line at the supermarket because she goes there three times each week?

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