Panel urges TSA to implement ‘trusted travelers’ program

Treating every airport passenger as a potential terrorist slows the security system, is needlessly frustrating and deters some people from flying, according to a report that recommends ways to ease bottlenecks at security checkpoints.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association and set to be released Wednesday, calls on airlines to allow passengers to check one bag free of charge and urges the creation of a voluntary “trusted traveler” program that partially resembles a mandatory one previously proposed by President George W. Bush — and shot down by Congress.

The furor last fall over new and invasive screening techniques by the Transportation Security Administration, and an avalanche of carry-on bags adding to airport lines, have ratcheted up pressure for change both in Congress and the travel industry.

The federal government would not need congressional approval to mandate that airlines allow one checked bag free. But it is doubtful that the TSA could implement a trusted-traveler initiative without congressional approval.

Adding impetus to the report is the heavyweight panel behind it, headed by Tom Ridge , former secretary of homeland security, and former congressman Jim Turner (D-Tex.), who was on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Travel industry analysts think the long-awaited report will continue the debate over screening procedures and add another element to it: Even a voluntary trusted-traveler approach would require passengers to provide credit information, tax returns and other personal data to verify that members pose little or no risk.

In return, they would be allowed to zip through security.

The panel also said that airlines should be ordered to drop baggage fees that now typically run from $20 to $100 per checked bag. Passengers carry on far more bags than ever to avoid those fees, creating even longer lines at TSA screening facilities.

Although TSA Administrator John S. Pistole would take issue with some of the panel’s findings, he has advocated moving away from a Maginot Line defense to a more nimble, risk-based approach. The report could help him deal with a risk-averse Congress.

“Pistole has outlined his vision for the future of airport security screening: one that is more risk-based and intelligence-driven, shifting away from a one-size-fits-all approach at checkpoints,” said TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball. “We welcome dialogue with stakeholders and the traveling public as the process moves forward.”

Frustration at new TSA policies boiled over last fall, drawing condemnation from a vocal minority of fliers and some members of Congress, who objected to the full-body scanners and pat-downs.

The proposal of a trusted-traveler program takes the debate through a thicket, pitting the right to privacy against the goal of secure flight. Congress rejected a Bush administration plan known as CAPPS II that would have tapped into credit information to verify passenger credentials.

“The key difference is that the program we’re recommending is totally voluntary,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, which commissioned the study a year ago. “Travelers, and especially frequent fliers, would give their right arm for a different experience.”

The report recommends a voluntary trusted-traveler program in which passengers would supply fingerprints and other personal information in return for an identification card that would allow them to bypass security lines.

Members would enter a kiosk where either fingerprint or iris scanning technology would be used to confirm their identity. Both the passenger and carry-on bags would pass through an explosives-detection device, but there would be no requirement to remove shoes, coats or hats.

Freeman said his group, which represents airlines, airports and virtually every aspect of the travel industry, isn’t “weak on security.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Smarter security will actually create a safer system. No industry pays a heavier price than we do when something goes wrong.”

The study portrays airport security as inefficient, invasive and expensive.

“Some in Congress appear to have calculated that there are no political consequences to an in­efficient and costly system but great political consequences to a successful terrorist attack,” the report says. “This is a classic Hobson’s choice that the American traveling public repudiates.”

The desire to debunk that political calculation runs throughout the report and is consistent with what Pistole and anti-terrorism experts have contended.

Even as his agency has adjusted its tactics to counter each new terrorist threat, Pistole has expressed views similar to some key points made by the panel.

In a keynote speech to the American Bar Association two weeks ago, Pistole said it was time to “streamline” the checkpoint process for most passengers.

“The vast majority of the 628 million [passengers who pass through TSA checkpoints each year] present little to no risk of committing an act of terrorism,” Pistole said. “My vision is to accelerate TSA’s evolution into a truly risk-based, intelligence-driven organization in every way. . . . We want to focus our limited resources on higher-risk passengers while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport.”

Although Pistole said he would support the use of personal data if Congress authorized his agency to access it or if passengers volunteered it, he’s cautious about creating a program that might give cardholders carte blanche to waltz through security.

The Travel Association study also says that the often criticized TSA security workforce should receive more training, particularly in detecting suspicious behavior by passengers.

Freeman said the will to make the system more flexible has to originate with Congress.

“Because TSA is always going to be subject to criticism from Congress, they’re always going to take the one-size-fits-all approach to security,” he said. “TSA may think that some of these are very fine ideas, but they are in a political hot seat. Nothing will happen until Congress changes the tone of the debate. Congress has to accept responsibility for risk management.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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