The security checkpoint at Boston-Logan International Airport Terminal A All photo by Benet J. Wilson
I'm confused. I've written on the aviation security beat for the past five years, and have done many stories on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) issues with a registered/trusted traveler program. I’ve recently read a Wall Street Journal article on how the agency may be changing their view on RT.
Back in August 2007, then-TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection that taxpayer resources were best applied to more critical needs than the Registered Traveler (RT) program. “Unfortunately, in the context of our other activities, RT is not an effective operational tool against the clean-skin terrorist and therefore we have not reduced the security process for RT passengers,” Hawley said in the subcommittee hearing.
And in November 2008, then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a bloggers roundtable that “to extent that we’re looking for a program that provides a satisfactory identification comparable to a passport or something we’d rely on for boarding an airplane, I think we’re interested in promoting the registered traveler program.”
Commercial RT programs do not offer a true background check, Chertoff stated then. “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 Clear RT gate at Orlando International Airport
At the peak of the RT program, there were three operators – Clear, FLO RT and Vigilant – operating in 21 airports. The program fell apart after Clear suddenly shut down in June 2009. And since then, whenever I contact TSA with questions about RT, I get a statement that is a variation of what’s currently posted on their website, here.
TSA stuck with that line even after the Obama administration took power. Two vendors – the new Clear and iQueue – are operating front-of-the-line programs at a handful of airports, but these programs do not offer the biometric option offered under the old program.
“Let's get away from one size fits all,'” said TSA Administrator John Pistole in the Wall Street Journal. “We think we can improve the process and focus more on people we know nothing about.”
I’m sure the traveling public -- especially the road warriors -- are glad to see this change of heart, but it begs a lot of questions: why now? Who will run the trusted traveler program? How will it be run? When will it go into operation? All I can say at this point is – watch this space!