ATW Editor's Blog

The security paradox of Trump’s first budget

by Karen Walker
Mar 17, 2017

US President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal would shift the majority of TSA costs on to the airlines and traveling public. Why would a president so hung up on American security do that?

The White House 2018 budget blueprint seeks to recover 75% of costs for TSA airport and aviation security operation via the passenger ticket security fee.

Although no specific numbers have been given on the size of the fee increase necessary to do this, you can do the math. TSA’s aviation security expenses for fiscal year 2016 totaled just over $6 billion. Passenger security fees collected $3.7 billion for the same year, but only $2.2 billion went to aviation security. Most of the rest went to general deficit reduction. Even if all the fee revenue went directly to TSA, it would fall well short of the 75%, or $4.5 billion, of costs the White House proposal seeks. So the ticket fee hike could be substantial and there’d be a budget hole elsewhere.

The ticket security fee is charged at $5.60 per one-way trip from any US airport. As most airline travel is roundtrip, let’s assume $11.20 is typically collected from each ticket, generating the $3.7 billion. To get to the approximately 75% of TSA costs that Trump is proposing, the security fee would need to generate close to another $1 billion annually, necessitating an extra $4 charge per roundtrip. That’s a 36% hike.

Under current congressional law, the ticket security fee is capped at $5.60 per one-way trip, so the law also would have to be changed to raise the fee.

Laws can be changed, of course. But the bigger question here is whether it’s acceptable, morally right, or even advantageous for the government to push the cost of its national security responsibilities on to the airlines and public?

The security fee – indeed, the entire creation of the Department of Homeland Security and TSA within that– was implemented after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Those terrorists used airliners as weapons to target America. And, as we know, the success of those attacks has kept airlines and airports in the sightlines of terrorists ever since. The reason that no attack has been achieved on a US airliner since 9/11 is not because the terrorists gave up. It’s because US aviation security became smarter and it’s working. The TSA may not always have got its public interactions right, but it did get security right. 

Airlines and airports remain high-profile terrorism targets. The responsibility for the majority of the costs to ensure the safety of passengers and aviation employees against further attacks belongs squarely with the government. National security is a government responsibility.

Trump is seeking to unload the costs of the one government agency that can actually be held up as a model for doing exactly what it is tasked to do with its money: keeping America secure. The paradox is that the infamous travel ban Trump wants to implement on certain countries, the billions he wants to spend on a wall between the US and Mexico, and the more billions he wants to put into the Pentagon’s already enormous budget, will not give anything like the dollar-for-dollar security value that TSA gives to America.  

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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