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Are we screwing up air security?

Prevention policies are tough to evaluate.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske Testifies To Senate Commerce Committee On Current Threats To Transportation Systems Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Federal Air Marshal Service is under scrutiny. Operational problems appear to be serious and, if so, need rectifying. However, it is important to separate operational (day-to-day) problems from strategic (long-term/mission-oriented) ones. I can’t speak to the operational problems, but I can offer some caution about jumping to conclusions regarding strategic issues. On this point, in a piece detailing the challenges faced by the Air Marshal Service, the New York Times reported:

Representative John J. Duncan Jr., Republican of Tennessee and longtime critic of the air marshals program, said the agency averaged one arrest each year per 1,000 marshals. Most of those arrests were for rowdy passengers or immigration violations, according to several air marshals.

And instead of putting marshals on flights deemed to be the highest risk, they are spread across as many flights as possible, including on domestic regional 50-seat planes. The strategy has been ridiculed as “flights to nowhere” by the Air Marshal Association, a union that is pushing the Senate to approve a bill requiring that air marshals be assigned to higher-risk flights. (It has already passed the House.)

Let’s parse these two claims about what I’ll call the air marshals’ “strategy.”

First claim: Air marshals are ineffective. Rep. Duncan’s claim is essentially that the strategy is ineffective because the air marshals don’t arrest many people. This is, as it stands, a complaint with ambiguous value. To validate it as a legitimate complaint, one would need to establish what would occur on flights if the air marshals changed their strategy. To make it clear, if there were no air marshals, would the number of in-flight crimes go up? If not, then the strategy is ineffective. However, if the strategy is effective, then it is deterring in-flight crimes.

Second claim: Air marshals might be effective but are assigned ineffectively. The Air Marshal Association essentially claims that air marshals are assigned ineffectively because they are assigned to short/few passenger flights.

  1. First, this is possibly silly because air marshals, like the rest of us, have to “get to the next flight.” All of us fly short, low-capacity routes to get to hubs for the bigger, longer flight that really matters.
  2. Second, if the air marshals were assigned only to (say) flights with more than 150 passengers or traveling more than 500 miles, then a terrorist looking to avoid air marshals would target flights with fewer than 150 passengers or flying less than 500 miles. That predictability is a bad strategy, a point made in slightly different ways by Robert Powell in this article.
  3. Third, and finally, it is important to note that Duncan’s claim and the Air Marshal Association’s claim are at odds with one another: If Duncan’s claim is correct, then the Air Marshal Association’s claim is irrelevant and vice versa.

Summing up, evaluating policy — which is typically aimed at big phenomena — can be harder than evaluating day-to-day performance. Both need to be constantly evaluated, but, particularly when it comes to security, it is important to recognize that the two can be very different.