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  • Could We Be Closer To A Trusted Traveler Program?
    Posted by Benet Wilson 5:12 PM on Mar 18, 2011

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    TSA officer at BWI Airport  Photo by Benet J. Wilson

    I read with interest today's post on the TSA Blog about how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is mulling the creation of identity-based screening and known travelers.  Before moving over to the business aviation side of the Aviation Week house, I covered airports and security for almost four years.  One of the stories I covered with a great deal of interest was the domestic registered traveler program.

    One line in particular in the blog post leapt out at me: "One possibility would be to have willing passengers provide more information about themselves." Why does this sound familiar? Oh right -- it was the original premise of the Registered Traveler program.

    The concept was originally tested as a 90-day TSA pilot program in 2004, where passengers volunteering for the program submitted biometric information including a fingerprint or iris scan, along with their name, address, phone number and birthday. The agency then compared the information with law enforcement and intelligence data, then approved passengers were able to go through designated registered traveler security lanes, where their biometric data are verified. The travelers then will go through preliminary security screening, "while secondary screening will be largely eliminated," TSA said at the time.

    Airports participating in the orginal pilot included Minneapolis-St. Paul Los Angeles International, Houston Intercontinental, Boston Logan and Washington National.  But as far back as 2002, TSA was skeptical about these types of programs.

    "What does it gain us?" chief John Magaw asked the Senate Commerce Committee back in February 2002 (the Aviation Daily story, for subscribers only, is here). While technology exists to set up such a program, it could create logistical problems at security checkpoints by creating two separate passenger processing lines. The program would also be geared more for convenience than security, and would likely not deter "sleeper" terrorists -- those who infiltrate society but take no action for years -- from creeping into the system, he added.

    Despite questions about the program, it was popular in Congress, so TSA in 2006 expanded the pilot for up to 20 airports, tapping the private sector to oversee the program.  Three operators -- Clear, Unisys/rtGO and Vigilent -- stepped up to the plate.

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    Clear registered traveler card Photo courtesy of Josh Hallett, via Flickr

    The Clear program launched in Orlando International Airport in July 2005.  And it was testing machines in Orlando back in 2007 that  allowed travelers to leave their shoes and coats on, and keep laptop computers in their bags, along with handling the iris scan, fingerprint readings and explosives detection, all within 25 seconds. But TSA had issues with reliability, and the machines were removed.

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    The Clear checkpoint at Washington Dulles  Photo by Benet J. Wilson

    During the pilot phase of RT, which ended in July 2008, vendors collected biographical information from travelers and TSA vetted for security threats. But once the 20-airport pilot program ended, TSA washed its hands from the program, saying the program “transitioned to a business model offered by the private sector in partnership with airports and airlines," noting it was no longer involved in the collection of biometrics or RT background checks.

    After TSA stopped processing fingerprints collected by RT vendors, the program remained just an identity program and not a security-vetting program.  TSA stopped allowing RT customers to use their cards as a primary form of ID at the checkpoint, further neutering the program.

    Commercial RT programs do not offer a true background check, then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Aviation Daily (subscribers only) back in November 2008 . “They run you against the watch list, which is what we do. They may also run immigration status, but that’s not really a security issue,” he noted. “And while that is a useful test, I’m not confident that it identifies the full range of threats to the degree that we would excuse [members] from the line. We need to be clear — no pun intended — that the RT program doesn’t offer a true background check.”

    The revitalized RT program, with vendors Clear and iQueue, frankly, is nothing but a separate line for travelers who pay $179 and $119 a year, respectively, for the privilege.

    And now TSA Chief John Pistole is signaling his agency may be softening its position somewhat on a trusted traveler program.  "We want to focus our limited resources on higher-risk passengers, while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport," he said in a speech March 3 before the American Bar Association,
    6th Annual Homeland Security Law Institute.

    "I believe what we’re working on will provide better security by more effectively deploying our resources, while also improving passengers’ travel experiences by potentially streamlining the screening experience for many people," Pistole said.

    So there may be hope.  And TSA need to look no further than its sister agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which currently operates the international Global Entry program in 20 U.S. gateway airports.

    Tags: tw99, TSA, airport, security

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