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What would it cost for the U.S. to get Israel-level airport security?

What would it cost for the U.S. to get Israel-level airport security?

A few years ago, the summer of the Lebanon War, I traveled to Israel. I flew back through Ben Gurion, as pristine, clean, empty, and beautiful an airport as I’ve ever been in. There were no lines anywhere and sightlines everywhere, giving it a bit of a Bentham’s Panopticon milieu. Indeed, before you step into the airport, you’ve already been scrutinized by Israeli security agents monitoring all approaching automobiles and entry doors.

Once inside, a team of pleasant airport employees approached me and asked if we could speak for a few minutes. We moved to a table in a gated section. This was the famed Israeli airport security screening. The guards, all neatly dressed and young — most, apparently, are just out of the IDF — spoke perfect English. They questioned me for about 20 minutes, politely and intensely — why I was there, what I had seen, where had I been, who had I met with, where I had stayed. They repeated questions. They took notes. They switched off. One member went through my bag item by item, swabbing and testing for residue. Finally, she led me through a set of doors, and wished me a good flight.

No shoe removal. No lines. No cramped corners. No underpaid, overworked security guards snapping gum. The screening happened with several professional, calm, and unrushed guards standing on the other side of a table from one passenger. Here in the States, it is an angry line of passengers wending before one security agent, often with eyes glued to the bag-screening monitor or a driver’s license. The former feels like scrutiny, the latter feels like a hassle.

By every available metric, Israel’s system works better at preventing violent attacks. The country, under constant terrorist threat, hasn’t faced a hijacking incident since 1969. A plane leaving Ben Gurion, the airport through which I traveled, never has. The latest deadly security incidents have involved attacks within airports, rather than from planes.

And it works, Israelis say, because it relies on the so-called “human factor.” Israel attempts to stop dangerous people before they come anywhere close to an airliner, profiling to assess each individual’s risk, whether due to conflicting answers to her questions or the color of his skin. They’re taught to stare people straight in the eyes. Additionally, I should note, Israel places armed, plainclothes guards on every flight.

The U.S. guards attempt to find and confiscate dangerous things. Thus, the country spends much less time per person than Israel does, focusing instead on substances and stuff — hand luggage, bottles of formula, and, idiotically, shoes. (Damn you, Richard Reid.)

Israel values its security, and pays for it. According to an analysis by Bloomberg News, Israel spends around 10 times more per passenger than the United States does. “[An analyst] estimated El Al’s security bill at $100 million a year, which amounts to $76.92 per trip by its 1.3 million passengers. Half is paid by the Israeli government,” Peter Robison wrote. The United States, in comparison, spent in 2008 $5.74 billion to monitor and protect 735,297,000 enplanements, or around $7.80 a passenger.

To be fair, this compares per-passenger costs for El Al, Israel’s national carrier, to the costs for the TSA, the U.S. agency responsible for air safety. Ideally, we’d want to compare the airport security costs for Shin Bet, a Israeli security agency. (I couldn’t find Shin Bet’s budget — if anyone has the relevant data, throw it in comments and we’ll compare apples with apples.) Still, multiple reports confirm Israel spends far more than the United States does.

In the wake of the Pants Bomber incident, the TSA and Department of Homeland Security have promised to review and beef up security measures. What would it be like if they held themselves to Israel’s standards?

Well, for one, the United States would need a whole lot more security guards — at least according to my back-of-the-envelope math. Say each passenger flying through a U.S. airport received on average 10 minutes of questioning from one guard. That would work out to 7.35 billion minutes, or 123 million hours, of work annually. We’d need 3 million full-time guards to perform it. That’s 200,000 more people than the total number of active and reserve military personnel, and twice the number of U.S. Wal-Mart employees. It would cost somewhere north of $150 billion a year. Sheesh.

Working the math out another way, let’s say that the U.S. decided to spend as much per passenger as Israel does, according to the Bloomberg analysis. We’d then pour around $62.2 billion a year into airport security — more than 10 times what we currently spend on airport security, and about as much as we spent fighting the war in Afghanistan last year.

Now, of course, I presume that the government wouldn’t be footing the whole bill. It costs more to fly into Israel than it does into other places, as airlines shift the price of security onto passengers. Let’s say the United States wanted to spend a moderate $25 more on security per passenger per year, transferring the cost into the ticket price with a tax. (There’s precedent — the United States did just this after 9/11.) That would raise $18 billion a year — and, presuming the same number of enplanements, it would be enough to pay for about 71 seconds of analysis of each passenger by a TSA guard.

Would I pay an additional $25 for 71 seconds of personal analysis? Maybe. But then again, maybe I’d rather go through one of these — which seems to be where the TSA is spending its dollars.

Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images