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TSA frequent traveler program likely to expand, agency says

A frequent-traveler program launched by the Transportation Security Administration over the summer is earning positive early reviews and is likely to be expanded, the agency’s boss is set to tell lawmakers Wednesday.

The program, started in July at airports in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami, permits pre-qualified passengers who are members of frequent-flier clubs operated by Delta and American airlines and frequent-traveler programs operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to pass through security checkpoints more swiftly if they provide personal information in advance. In most cases, the passengers do not need to remove items from carry-on luggage for screening.

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole is set to tell lawmakers Wednesday that the program is proving successful and “holds great potential to strengthen security while significantly enhancing the travel experience, whenever possible, for passengers.”

Pistole is scheduled to testify at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on changes to aviation security in the decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The committee provided copies of his testimony in advance.

A similar pilot program permitting crew members from 22 airlines to provide personal information in advance is also proving popular, according to Pistole, with more than 59,000 uniformed pilots enrolled in its first two months of operation.

Changes to how the TSA screens young children also appear to be working, according to Pistole’s testimony. Over the summer, amid an uproar over the invasive pat-downs of several young children, the agency announced that children 12 and younger would no longer need to remove their shoes while going through airport security checkpoints. Young children may now pass through screening machines several times to identify potentially suspicious objects before an agent conducts a pat-down.

The change has cut — but not eliminated — the number of children subjected to pat-downs, Pistole said, meaning the agency can “focus its finite resources on those who pose higher risks to transportation.”

Travel and transportation industry leaders set to testify at the hearing are slated to push Congress to adopt a trusted-traveler program nationwide and to radically rethink the security screening process. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing more than 230 airlines, is pushing for a “risk-based” process that would divide passengers into three security lanes: frequent travelers, normal screening or enhanced screening.

“We won’t settle for anything less than a revolution in the way passengers are treated at the airport,” IATA President Kenneth J. Dunlap is slated to tell senators.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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