Air Safety in the Ugly Aggregate

Nobody likes this tantrum of air security theater. The inconvenience and servility that TSA is imposing on the shoeless herds stuck shuffling through all the nation’s airports is an affront to dignity and the republican spirit. Julian Sanchez, characteristically, hits the right notes here, wondering about what this system of discipline will mean, even if it works ‘not just most of the time, but all of the time.’ I also like David Brooks’ take very much.

One popular response that I don’t endorse is that of Nate Silver, who argues that “our” fear of terrorist attack on an airplane is irrational, since the odds of any one of us encountering it are so miniscule.

These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.

…Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade.

Naturally, what follows from this is the comparison to lightning strikes, car accidents, etc., all of which proves that each of us should, with cool rationality, recognize the comparative safety of plane travel and…

And what? Stop taking our shoes off? Vote for candidates who promise to abolish pat-downs while still keeping air travel marginally safer than driving? The risk calculations that drive our air security apparatus are, in their perverse way, rational, because systemic risk has been concentrated, rather than dispersed. We have so thoroughly collectivized the risk of air incidents in our cultural imagination, our financial system, and our bureaucratic institutions that what you think about the risk of terrorism matters not one bit. Air travel as we know it is a brittle matrix of fragile, risk-averse, leveraged systems, and the gentleman with the blue nitrile gloves is there not to protect you, but to protect the matrix.

I pulled the same data that Nate did, and get the same aggregate totals for his ten-year period. But dividing those numbers out to the level of the individual passenger makes no sense to the managers responsible for maintaining the system. Nobody cares what your odds of being a victim are. What matters to the security principals is the risk of one catastrophic failure in the entire system during their tenure.

Say you are the Secretary of Homeland Security, and you plan to serve for four years before getting the hell out and working on Wall Street. There will be almost 3 million enplanements during your tenure. Aircraft for which you are nominally responsible will fly almost 30 billion miles. If we must do the Nickelodeon Numerology game, it would take light about 43 hours to go that far in space! Using Nate’s estimate of one terrorist per 11.5 billion miles flown, you can expect about 2 1/2 incidents on your watch. Look busy!

I don’t mean to say that any of us should live in fear, or that we shouldn’t chafe under the indignities and inconvenience of contemporary air travel. But our air travel industry is currently structured such that any incident can be a catastrophic one. We have, as David Brooks shows, collectivized and bureaucratized the risk of dying in a plane crash to an extent that we haven’t yet figured out how to do with cars and lightning bolts. Maybe there’s an institutional or entrepreneurial solution. Maybe Peter Thiel will start Seastead Air and design a risk structure that favors rational choices at the passenger level. Until then, you’re at the mercy of a system that sees you as a threat until it’s seen you naked.

[I’m turning off comments, since I can’t follow a combox over the weekend. But someone please get in touch with me if I’ve gotten the math wrong.]

[updated 1/11 to fix nitrile glove reference ]