Stung by the traveling public’s disapproval of its one-size-fits-all approach to passenger screening, the Transportation Security Administration last month announced that it would begin testing a new trusted-traveler program. But if you think that the next time you fly, you’ll speed through the security line as though it were 1999, you’re probably in for a letdown.
Only a chosen few will qualify, at no cost, for the first phase of the identity-based pre-screening test, which is scheduled to launch this fall. Elite-level frequent fliers with American and Delta, plus members of other trusted-traveler programs such as Global Entry, which offers a shortcut throughU.S. Customs, will be eligible. And the program will initially be available in just four airports: Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Dallas.
That hasn’t stopped some from getting excited about the idea, including tourism officials and frequent fliers, who see pre-screening as a more efficient way of checking passengers. But other travelers are skeptical, believing that the concept could create more problems than it solves.
They’re both right.
The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that represents the American travel industry, has been pushing hard for a trusted-traveler option. It recently commissioned an online survey on the program’s feasibility, which not surprisingly found that almost two-thirds of frequent leisure travelers would be willing to go through a pre-screening process if they could potentially cut the TSA line and avoid the pat-down or full-body scan. U.S. Travel’s survey also suggested that nearly half of all air travelers would pay an annual fee of up to $150 to belong to such a program.
But Erik Hansen, the organization’s director of domestic policy, says that all air travelers would benefit from the new TSA program. “Regular travelers will start to see shorter wait times, because you’ve removed people from the line and sped up the entire process as a result,” he told me.
Adam Tope, an attorney in Washington, also has high hopes for the trusted-traveler program. He already uses Global Entry, a service of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He describes it as “life-changing” because it allows him to speed through customs instead of waiting in a long line. He hopes that the trusted-traveler program will be equally effective.
But other passengers aren’t so enthusiastic. “This will simply make the average American air traveler a second-class citizen,” says Jeff Buske, a Las Vegas entrepreneur and activist who invented privacy- and radiation-protective undergarments. “Or, if you will, an un-trusted citizen.”
Buske thinks that the program’s probable annual fee would be burdensome to the average traveler. Although it has no annual fee for now, Global Entry charges a $100 nonrefundable application fee, and the TSA program is expected to cost about the same. This would mean that only frequent business travelers and wealthy vacationers could afford the fast lane, something Buske considers unfair.