Summertime vacation travel comes with long airport security lines. Most airports have two security lines. One Transportation Security Administration (TSA) line for economy travelers, and another for first class and business class travelers. At times the economy passenger security line is so long it winds out the door while the first class security line is empty.
I am among the great unwashed proletariat that flies in the cheap[er] seats. Economy round trip tickets from NY to London, for example, start at $1,500 compared to first class at $5,000 to $10,000. NY to LA round trip is $600 for economy versus $2,200 to $6,200. I'm 6'4" so I could really use the extra leg room, but the difference in cost isn't worth it to me even if you throw in free drinks and meals. As I walk through the first class section of the plane to get to my seat, I smile with gratitude at the folks who have effectively subsidized my ticket on this airplane by paying top dollar for their wider seats and amenities bag.
A friend who works at one of the large international air carriers tells me that the rule of thumb for his airline is that if you fill up the first class cabin with paying customers, you can fly the rest of the plane empty and still make a healthy profit.
However, none of the extra money those passengers pay for their first class tickets pays for the incremental per head costs for expedited first class TSA security lines. Some of TSA's $8 billion annual budget comes from a $5 per one way ticket (domestic or international) passenger security fee and some comes from fees paid by the airlines, but collectively this only comes to 28% of TSA's budget.
You, the taxpayer, are paying the $6 billion difference and subsidizing this two-tiered class system. There is another airport security program administered by TSA called Precheck which speeds up the check-in procedure for frequent fliers with the theory that frequent fliers are less of a security risk. Precheck approved passengers from participating airlines get to leave their shoes, belts and jackets on and their laptops and compliant liquids in their carry-on bags. Precheck may prove in time that there are incremental lower costs in processing frequent fliers through security, but this still does not justify why taxpayers should be subsidizing the costs of sending first and business class passengers swiftly through the array of scanners and sniffers.
In 2012 Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb) introduced the Airline Passenger Fairness Act to ban this government subsidized discriminatory practice, but he retired in January 2013 before the legislation could be voted on.
In speaking to TSA managers at various airports, they insist that they are doing this as a courtesy to and at the request of the airlines and that, 'theoretically' anyone with a valid ticket and ID could insist on going through these express first class lines. I have never tested this theory, as I have never gotten to the airport with several hours to spare to see if the TSA rank and file would just let me through or take me to a back room and perform a pat down and body cavity search.
All my life I have held onto the belief that our American society has made continuous progress in trying to become a classless, egalitarian society. Our nation's repeated iconic success story is that of a poor immigrant coming to our shores and, because of their smarts and hard work, and equal opportunities, achieving fame and fortune. Our long history of struggle from fighting for independence through the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement to secure equal rights for race, gender and gender preference has been to provide equal access to all and equal treatment under the law. That is what we're supposed to be about.
We all accept the fact that money can buy extra privileges. But what the hell is a government subsidized two class system which favors rich folks at the expense of not just less wealthy air travelers, but all taxpayers, doing at public airports?