During his confirmation hearing Thursday, the nominee for Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration Erroll Southers indicated his strong support for a risk-based Registered Traveler program.  His confirmation appears pretty likely so hopefully his arrival at TSA will signal a new willingness to consider RT and other risk-based programs at the TSA checkpoint.

The tortured saga of RT is pretty well known.  Just as private sector providers had built out a promising network of airport locations, over 200,000 loyal subscribers, and an impressive regime to biometrically-verify pre-approved travelers at the checkpoint, TSA pulled the rug out from RT in the summer of 2008.  Then Administrator Kip Hawley discontinued the security background check of the program, meaning applicants were providing both biometric and biographic information that was never even reviewed by DHS for security risks.  Viewing RT as solely a front-of-the-line program, investors grew increasingly skeptical of the financial viability of RT as month after month went by at the end of the Bush Administration and then as the Obama Administration waited eight months to nominate Southers.  Finally, in June, investors in the major RT provider, Verified Identity Pass, pulled the plug on VIP’s CLEAR service and the collapse of their RT network brought down other smaller players as well.

The reluctance of TSA to support the RT program came during a time when TSA made great strides in strengthening the other aspects of its layered security regime for aviation. RT applicants still would be operating in an environment where TSA is deploying a myriad of counter-terrorism programs including: Secure Flight pre-flight watchlist reviews, behavorial profiling teams, checkpoint security equipment, baggage screening equipment, canine teams, air marshals, trained flight attendants, strengthened cockpit doors, and armed pilots. The RT security background check would be just one aspect of vetting RT applicants flying aboard commercial aircraft.

Of course TSA has made a reasonable argument in warning against turning off portions of the security process that might detect a “clean skin” terrorist with no record.  However, TSA needs to review what changes at the security checkpoint can be made if they have the impact of having millions of travelers provide significant assurance that they are not a threat by passing an initial and daily background checks and confirming their identity at the checkpoint. The current TSA position requires even individuals with the broadest security clearance possible to get in the same line, see the same screeners, and utilize the same machines as a transiting load of international passengers who just arrived from a country know to host Al-Queda cells. This makes no sense.  Congress appears to agree, including language in the House-passed TSA Reauthorization bill that would require TSA to review the viability of RT.

While airport wait times have decreased in past year due to declines in travel and improvements in TSA processes, TSA should look to RT as a powerful tool when the economy recovers and our airports and skies are more crowded than ever before.  There is also a powerful linkage with the CBP Global Entry expedited entry program that could be developed to maximize travel facilitation and demonstrate a unified DHS agenda.

The comments of Mr. Southers are a promising start to a reevaluation of RT.  The private sector is ready to provide the funding and marketing to build an effective security partnership if TSA and DHS are willing to rethink this important issue.