TSA opens pre-screening to general public

Laptops out, belts off, shoes in the bin … and don’t forget to pack carry-on liquids in a see-through plastic bag.

Passenger-screening rules have become stricter and more time-consuming at U.S. airports since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but that’s slowly starting to change.

During the past several years, the Transportation Security Administration has relaxed its screening guidelines for frequent fliers and a few other types of travelers willing to submit to pre-screenings through a program known as PreCheck — body- and bag-scans are still required for those who qualify.

(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Friday, the agency announced that it would expand that program to the general public, allowing more passengers to walk through airport security without going through all the usual, cumbersome screening rituals. Pre-approved travelers will have access to select screening lanes where security officers won’t make them remove laptops, shoes, belts, or light outerwear.

Passengers can apply for PreCheck through an online enrollment site beginning sometime this fall — TSA has not announced an exact date. Interested fliers must submit identification and fingerprints in person at Washington Dulles International Airport or Indianapolis International Airport, although the agency plans to expand to additional sites nationwide.

TSA PreCheck “enables us to focus on the travelers we know the least about, adding efficiency and effectiveness to the screening process,” TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said in a statement on Friday.

Twelve million passengers have already used the program, which is available at 40 U.S. airports, according to TSA. Enrollment requires a background check, fingerprints and a fee that the agency has tentatively set at $85.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House committee that oversees TSA, applauded the agency’s plan in a statement on Friday. “If done right, the program has the potential to afford a greater number of individuals who pose no threat to aviation security the type of less-invasive passenger-screening frequent fliers and other handpicked populations have enjoyed for over a year,” he said.

Private contractors will handle pre-screening for the program. That arrangement could raise concerns about privacy, as applicants have to provide personal information — names, dates of birth and possibly Social Security numbers and addresses — in addition to allowing the companies to “search various non-governmental/commercial data,” according to TSA’s January call for industry proposals.

Thompson alluded to the risk of potential abuses in his statement, suggesting that the expanded PreCheck program will require transparency and oversight. “As with all screening programs administered by TSA, the success of the endeavor will be dependent on effective communications with the public and effective management behind the scenes,” he said.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · July 19, 2013