Why you shouldn’t feel too grateful to Delta for hiring people to help with the TSA security-line crunch

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Carry-on bags end up imposing costs on the TSA and passengers: TSA must hire more agents and/or buy more equipment, and all passengers (even those who check their bags) spend more time in security lines.

Travelers are getting more and more irritated about long lines at security checkpoints.  It’s getting so bad that, “Delta Air Lines will hire 40 people this summer to help federal agents get passengers through security faster at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport,” according to the Star Tribune.

Declining numbers of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents available to inspect passengers and their possessions combined with an increase in passengers since 2011 are the proximate causes of this problem. But to an economist, there’s a more fundamental source: airlines are creating a “negative externality” by charging baggage fees.

Externalities and their causes

An externality is a cost or benefit from an activity that accrues to those who do not pursue the activity. So, for example, getting vaccinated creates a positive externality because both the person being vaccinated and those who are not vaccinated benefit — each group is less likely to get sick.

Carry-on luggage generates a negative externality. Passengers bring their luggage on board, creating a bottleneck in the security lines as TSA agents must take more time to inspect all of the extra suitcases passengers are lugging on board their flights. Thus the carry-on bags end up imposing costs on the TSA and passengers: TSA must hire more agents and/or buy more equipment, and all passengers (even those who check their bags) spend more time in security lines.

Of course, there’s a simple reason for all the carry-on luggage clogging up the security lines and jamming the overhead compartments of every commercial aircraft: baggage fees. By charging fees for checked luggage, airlines generate a negative externality borne by all passengers and, ultimately, all taxpayers.

Solutions to externalities

Economists advocate two types of solutions for externalities. First, if the parties creating the externality and those bearing the burden of the externality can communicate with one another at relatively low cost, then the groups should negotiate with one another to find a solution. For example, Delta is hiring personnel that will work with the TSA to speed up the security process. Similarly, the TSA and the airlines could negotiate a broader agreement whereby the airlines subsidize hiring and equipment purchases for the TSA.

Second, the government could impose a tax on the airlines. For instance, TSA could tag each bag with a barcode indicating the airline on which the passenger is traveling and charge the airline a fee for each bag that goes through the TSA passenger security check-in points. Or, the federal government could estimate the proportion of carry-on luggage each airline is generating and levy a user fee proportional to this figure.

Another way of correcting the problem would be to require airlines to charge fees for both checked and carry-on baggage — something budget carriers like Spirit already do voluntarily. This would work like a tax since it would increase the price of bringing luggage on board relative to checking it in, and would probably lead to more passengers checking their bags.

Of course, a simple solution would be for airlines to lower or eliminate checked baggage fees. They aren’t likely to do this on their own, however, as those fees generated roughly $3.8 billion in revenue during 2015. A compromise might be to take the money being plowed into more TSA agents and send it to the airlines in return for reducing baggage fees. Or, the Department of Transportation could require airlines to offer at least one free checked bag per passenger per flight.

Taxpayers can pay for more TSA agents, Delta can hire workers to help with security, but the long lines won’t go away until the airlines, the airport authorities, and/or the TSA deal with baggage-fee externalities.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/25/2016 - 10:59 am.

    The first presidential candidate

    who promises to eliminate the TSA will win in a landslide.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 05/25/2016 - 11:18 am.

    Carry on Bags

    Checked bags also need to be screened. If everyone checked their bags, you’d still have a big problem. It would just be at the tail end of the trip when everyone is scrambling to file a claim for their missing luggage that didn’t make the flight.

    The core problem is TSA mismanagement and incompetence. An example: Two weeks ago I flew from Mpls to Hamburg Germany via Newark. On the Mpls to Newark flight, I was NOT precheck. On the Newark Hamburg flight I WAS precheck. Complete idiocy!

    • Submitted by Jonathan Eisenberg on 05/25/2016 - 12:40 pm.

      If you have Pre-Check status on one flight and not on another, then you are not registered for Pre-Check. You have been given discretionary Pre-Check status by your airline. It is the airline that is giving it to yo for one flight and not another. If you want it for all flights, you will have to register for it with TSA. Once registered, you will have it for all flights – but only for airports that have TSA Pre-Check lines (MSP does).

    • Submitted by Julie Barton on 05/25/2016 - 01:01 pm.

      Pre-Check is the way to go

      First, yes, checked bags also need to be screened, but the silly restrictions on liquids do not apply, so there is time saved by having to not explain to Mommy with a Toddler that the juice pack cannot come through. Or explaining – which I heard last week – that it didn’t matter that the prescription cream only came in a 5 oz tube, it couldn’t come through, and then listening to the arguments back up the line.

      I hate that everyone brings their too-big-to-be-a-carry-on bag on board these days. It leads to a cramped plane at best, and crankier people at worst.

      I paid for TSA Pre-Check and its the best $$ I’ve spent for travelling. Even airports that do not have a TSA Pre-Check line provide me some accommodation that the rest of the public doesn’t get: such as not having to remove liquids from the suitcase, not having to take off my shoes or jacket, etc. I’ve even been plucked out of line and moved to the front of the queue b/c they know I won’t take any extra time. Yeah, sometimes I feel bad for sort of getting preferential treatment, but then I remember that they did a full background check on me to know that the can give me preferential treatment when I come through.

      What did the $75 save me? a 1.5 hour wait in line last week at 8am. I was through my security line in 7 minutes.

  3. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 05/25/2016 - 01:12 pm.

    The Core Problem?

    The core problem here is that airport security is a charade, a grand piece of civic theater designed to make people believe that air travel is protected. In fact, it has been widely reported that when the system is tested, 95% of the time it fails to catch even obviously suspicious items, including real guns, knives and mock bombs. Nobody seems to care very much about that startling statistic, which is because we don’t think about this issue rationally. The “show” of removing our shoes and belts makes us FEEL safe, even if it doesn’t actually make us safe.

    If you want further proof, think about the mysterious “TSA Precheck” status which allows you to zip through lines without all of the rigorous examination. How do you get that level of trust from an airline? It isn’t at all clear, and appears (from my experience) that you often get it just by being a repeat customer and/or paying more.

    If we could think rationally about it for a moment, we’d quickly realize that the TSA is essentially a public subsidy of — a colossal GIFT to — the airlines. What it protects is the business of air travel. As such, the airlines should really be picking up the entire cost and making it up however the market allows. Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point, where the FEELING OF SAFETY isn’t sufficient to offset the GIGANTIC INCONVENIENCE, and the economics will change, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Were that to happen, we might actually see some innovation in the protection of air travel. I’m convinced that there need be no security checkpoints in airports at all. I dream of that day. The technology needed to make that a reality (including, but not limited to, detailed and multifaceted surveillance of all airport activity) already exists, but without financial incentives, there’s no reason to implement it.

    As long as the government puts on “The Security Show,” we will be stuck standing in long and pointless lines, throwing out bottles of shampoo that are slightly too large for some arbitrary limit, and collectively paying exorbitant amounts of money for essentially no protection — well, 5% protection, if you go by statistics.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/25/2016 - 01:34 pm.

    Pay as you go

    TSA should be totally funded by airlines. A taxpayer who never flies, obviously often due to less income, should not be subdizing those who do, particularly those flying on business for companies that practice tax evasion enough to pay little or no tax. If the airlines are paying, they have a financially incentive to deal with the baggage management problems their own profit seeking behaviors have created.

  5. Submitted by John Clouse on 05/25/2016 - 04:47 pm.


    I believe the Feds already charge passengers a fee to cover the TSA.
    Unfortunately they then took a large chunk of this and used it to pay down the debt (read: give money to their buddies on Wall Street) and so we have 5,000 fewer agents than we did a few years ago!
    The restoration of 5,000 agents would go a long way toward relieving those long lines.
    With Congress as it is, don’t look for anything positive to happen soon.

  6. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/26/2016 - 08:57 am.

    Passenger in airport means no takeoff

    The ONE way to get the attention of airline management is very simple. Substantially reduce their profits because they screwed up and they WILL pay very close attention.

    If the TSA lines are causing unreasonably delays (over 15 minutes = unreasonable), then no plane can leave until ALL the passengers in TSA lines for that flight have cleared and boarded. Yeah, that screws up the airline–but it is the airline’s fault, so they pay for it. That is a MAJOR expense that reduces the profit of the airline *and* shows the public exactly which airlines *do* care about their passengers. Nothing stops the airlines from adding *additional* clearance points to get passengers through more quickly AND securely in order to protect their profits.

    • Submitted by Robert Owen on 05/26/2016 - 09:42 am.

      Make the plane wait?

      How would you know the late passenger is still stuck in the TSA line and isn’t at home, having overslept?

      • Submitted by Alex Grill on 05/26/2016 - 10:41 am.

        Computer systems

        The airlines know who has checked in, when they checked in, and how they checked in.

        • Submitted by Dan Berg on 05/27/2016 - 09:19 am.

          Not how it works

          You can check in for a flight 24 hours ahead of time from any computer or phone. So the fact somebody has checks in gives zero indication of their location.

  7. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 05/26/2016 - 10:43 am.

    Checked bags

    Airlines charging for luggage has been going on for several years now (for most airlines) and as mentioned above a huge revenue generator. If carry-ons are the causing this problem why is it just becoming an issue at this point in time? What changed? I know low fuel prices are driving a surge in people flying but fuel has been low for years as well. From what I am reading most airports with private security are not seeing as long a wait as TSA airports so is the issue really the TSA or carry on bags. When the head of the TSA screeners fails and does not get fired but still gets $90,000 in bonus’ I think the TSA is the culprit; poor leadership permeates the entire organization and it is reflected in poor performance. Thank you.

  8. Submitted by Avi Goldstein on 05/27/2016 - 07:10 am.

    Checked Bag Screening

    Has as already been mentioned, checked bags are subject to screening as well, so this would just shift the bottleneck to that, and many more passengers would arrive without their luggage. Earlier this month in PHX a screening issue caused over 3,000 bags to miss their flights. Stop blaming the airlines for the TSA’s inability to fulfill their mandate.

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