The Market for Safety

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Adrian Day suggests that airport security would be better if a single entity were responsible for it, whether that were the government or some private group. I agree that it is important for responsibility to be taken, but I don’t see why it must be taken by a single entity.

Another way to improve security would be to treat it in the way in which other services are treated. Airlines could offer any warranty they pleased to passengers and be held to those warranties. Some might guarantee safe transport, and back up that guarantee with a pervasive security system, complete with passenger, aircraft, employee, and baggage searches. At the other extreme, some airlines might make no warranty at all and allow passengers to board with no searching, profiling, or even identification. They might even want to make” travel at your own risk” a condition of boarding an aircraft, the way that baseball teams inform spectators that they are voluntarily accepting the risk of being hit by an errant ball or bat.

Of course, the airlines would have to be allowed to discriminate in any way they pleased with regard to the passengers whom they would allow to board an aircraft. Individual airlines could set their own policies on whether to search passengers, how intrusive the search should be, etc. If a passenger didn’t like the kind of search one airline has, he could select another with a less-intrusive search choose another means of transportation, or stay home.

If the airline guaranteed passenger safety and one of its planes were hijacked, it would be subject to lawsuit and possible bankruptcy. If it guaranteed only to take certain precautions and its aircraft were hijacked, it could be held liable only if it had failed to take those precautions. If it made no security guarantee at all, allowing quick boarding and no waits at the airport (I.E., if it treated passengers the way subways do, surviving heirs of victims of hijackings could not sue at all (and the airlines might have a difficult time finding passengers.

This approach – that is, following traditional common-law contract and liability law rather than the legal interventionism that has grown more and more widespread in recent years – would be no panacea. But freedom and competition and innovation are much more likely to reduce the danger of hijacking than the current policy of the government’s deciding a single approach, imposing it on all airlines and all passengers, and taking no responsibility when it fails. It would also foster and reward people taking responsibility for their own safety, rather than relying on a government one-size-fits-all program of the sort that failed so miserably on Sept. 11.

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