The Navigator: Can we trust the TSA’s proposed trusted-traveler program?

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.

(Alla Dreyvitser)

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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.

Jeff Jung, a TV producer and frequent traveler based in San Antonio, says that he wouldn’t consider the program successful unless all travelers — even infrequent air travelers who can’t afford to join — can see some benefit. But something is better than nothing, he says.

“The current situation is clearly unworkable and not pleasant for anyone who goes through the screening process,” he says. “So I applaud the TSA for trying to improve the situation. But everything hinges on how they implement it.”

While a successful trusted-traveler program could improve the screening experience, that’s not the only reason TSA is heading in that direction, according to Marc Frey, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now works for a Washington law firm. The TSA is running out of ways to check travelers, he says, so “implementing a screening system based on data provided by the traveler is the most efficient and effective alternative.”

In a sense, both its supporters and its detractors are right about the trusted-traveler program. Pre-screening passengers via a background check is a far more efficient approach. For some air travelers, and maybe someday for many, it could make air travel less of a hassle.

But at what price? Beyond a possible $100 application fee and perhaps a $150 annual cost, a trusted-traveler program would require other sacrifices. Giving up personal information and other biometric data is troubling to me, and to many air travelers it’s completely unacceptable. Getting a pre-flight fingerprint or iris scan is the kind of thing that would have inspired George Orwell to write another dystopian novel.

We already fund the TSA through taxes, a “9/11 Passenger Security Fee” and a ticket tax of $2.50 per flight. I’m troubled by a program that could cost participants another $100. Not only would it further divide the haves — the elite-level passengers who are already granted every amenity they desire — and the have-nots crammed into the steerage section, but it also sends a problematic message from the government to air travelers: If you want us to trust you, it’ll cost you extra.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org .

 
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