Why Do Some Get Preferential Treatment?

BY Paul Solman  July 30, 2012 at 9:40 AM EDT


A TSA agent instructs travelers on traveling through security lines at Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images.

Paul Solman frequently answers questions from the NewsHour audience on business and economic news on his Making Sen$e page. Here is Monday’s query:

Name: Doug Kelsch

Question: Why do passengers who are traveling in first class or are members of an airline’s preferred customer base also get preferred treatment going through TSA security lines? How can a private enterprise like Delta Airlines single out certain customers to benefit from a the TSA program, which is funded by all taxpayers — even those in steerage?

Paul Solman: Ah, great question, Doug. Indeed, the very question Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel asks in his new book, “What Money Can’t Buy.” Here’s how he put it in an interview that ran on the NewsHour recently:

Michael Sandel: It’s interesting to notice that over the past three decades there are many aspects of life where you can pay your way to the head of the line. In airports, those long lines of security check points, if you’re flying on an expensive ticket you can go to the head of the line. Even if you’re flying coach, the airlines will sell you, as an à la carte perk, the right to go to the head of the line for the security check.

Paul Solman: Hey, at Logan Airport I have a gold passport card right here, where I think it was $200 and I get to park on the third level of central parking and I have to confess I love that.

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Michael Sandel: OK. But here’s the question. Is there a difference between paying for a service, a better parking place, or even paying to board the airplane first so you get access to the overhead bin — that’s a service — and paying to go to the head of the queue for security checks which after all are to provide for national security to prevent terrorism on airplanes? Is that paying for a service or is that paying for a public good?

In other words, Professor Sandel asks your question exactly.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions