Why Do the Rich Get to Go Through Airport Security Faster Than You?

After the attacks of 9/11, lawmakers scrambled to beef up airport security. Soon after the dust had settled, we were faced with long lines and invasive searches. Thousands were added to a watch list, from which it seemed impossible to be removed. Shampoo bottles, nail scissors and shoes became potentially lethal weapons. 

But apparently enhanced screening is for the rabble, not the elites. Surely the wealthy and powerful couldn’t be expected to stand for such inconvenience. 

Recently, flying out of McCarran airport in Las Vegas, I had to wait in a long line to get through the security checkpoint. But only because I was flying “steerage” -- economy class. At McCarran, like many other airports in the United States, those who can afford to pay a private airline for a cushy first-class seat get a free perk, courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- they can cut in front of the proles by using an express line reserved for first- and business-class passengers. 

It’s a case of the government maintaining and enforcing a blatant class division. Prior to 9/11, security screening was the responsibility of airports -- they relied on private security contractors. Two months after the attacks, Congress created the TSA, federalizing screeners and baggage handlers at the nation’s airports. Since then, airport security has represented “our tax dollars at work,” and as Boston University economists Laurence J. Kotlikoff and David Rapson showed, when you add it all up — state and local taxes, federal taxes and excise fees –  we all pay about the same tax rate, whether rich or poor

But we don’t get the same service from Homeland Security. Flying has become tremendously annoying since 9/11, and if hard-working, tax-paying Americans flying tourist class have to wait in that long, slow line — maintained by the government — why don’t the wealthy? The airlines have every right to pamper their elite fliers all they want — those travelers paid for it, and that’s how the private sector works — but what did they do to deserve that courtesy from the federal government?

The answer is: nothing. According to the Las Vegas Sun, “Airline representatives asked airport officials to add dedicated lines for first-class passengers at security checkpoints” a few months after the attacks of 9/11. At first they balked. “We thought, ‘first come, first served was the way to go,’” said Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of the Clark County Aviation Department. “And ‘first’ didn’t mean first class.” But in 2008, the airlines got what they wanted.

Vegas isn’t alone. Dozens of airports offer an express lane for travelers based on nothing other than their ability to pay the price. This is distinct from frequent traveler lanes, where passengers without large carry-ons can get through security quickly.

Less obvious, but equally offensive on reflection, is the Registered Traveler program, which the TSA launched in 2004. It allows passengers to pay a fee of up to $200 to a private company, which in turn submits their applications to Homeland Security for "pre-screening." Local airports get rental fees from the private firms for their booths -- just like car rental agencies -- but the federal government does the heavy lifting. Again, it’s our tax dollars at work, but the profits end up in the pockets of investors in a handful of certified companies. (The largest provider, CLEAR, is in bankruptcy, but it’s still selling its services.)

The program was sold as a smarter way to handle security, but if anything, it makes air travelers less safe. Depending on the program and airport, Registered Travelers aren’t subjected to the same searches as ordinary passengers -- they’re less likely to face secondary searches, for example. According to Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer at Counterpane Internet Security, it’s not about making flying safer. "Don't think of it as 'I'm helping the nation be more secure,'” he told the New York Times,  “but as 'I'm cutting the line.' And, as a traveler, cutting the line is really helpful."

Cutting the line would certainly be helpful for all of us. And yet few object to being treated as second-class citizens based on the fact that they didn’t buy a first-class ticket -- tax deductible for business travelers --or pay a private contractor to submit an application to the TSA. That’s because Americans are taught, from an early age, that they live in a pure meritocracy. The belief is so ingrained that we often have difficulty seeing class distinctions promoted by our government, even when they’re right in front of our eyes.

It’s so dominant that you can walk by an express security line set up exclusively for the convenience of the well-to-do and not even give it a second thought.


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