Yesterday, TSA Administrator John Pistole announced the first step in what is hopefully a lengthy process to reorient TSA’s airport checkpoint screening in a more risk-based manner. TSA, and the broader DHS community, deserves credit for the announcement and the willingness to take on some political risk themselves in changing a checkpoint system that cannot be sustained.

Pistole announced a limited partnership with two airlines and four airports where a limited number of travelers selected by the airlines due to their frequent flyer status will be asked to opt-in to a new screening program. Participants in Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) trusted traveler programs (Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI) flying with the same set of air carrier and airport will be allowed to participate. This “proof of concept” is mainly designed to ascertain exactly what changes need to be made at the airport to divide travelers into the regular lanes and dedicated “known/trusted” lanes and to train TSA personnel on the screening protocols for the new group of low-risk travelers. Enrolled members normally, but not automatically, will be allowed to go through security without divesting themselves of their shoes or jackets, or taking electronics out of carry-on bags. Passengers who set off alarms will still need additional screening, and some percentage of passengers will be selected for random additional screening, both of which are appropriate and necessary.

This is obviously a cautious toe in the water for TSA, but it is notable that TSA and DHS have been able to win the support of nearly all aviation stakeholders and to convince air carriers to modify their boarding pass systems to identify “known/trusted” travelers for identification by TSA’s Travel Document Checker (TDC) workforce. DHS also deserves credit for recognizing that CBP’s trusted traveler population, which is expanding significantly with the success of Global Entry, should be leveraged for domestic security evaluations.

For those who remember the Registered Traveler program that collapsed in 2009, the new initiative will be much more than a front-of-the-line program. Although the leading RT provider, CLEAR, tried mightily to convince TSA and DHS at the time to conduct enhanced background checks on participants in exchange for changes at the checkpoint, TSA at the time was unwilling or unable to implement a risk-based RT program. However, even that RT system demonstrated there is immense public willingness to provide additional personal information and to pay for a better security system that recognizes a person’s low-risk nature.

As the pilot moves into a full-blown program in the coming months, there are several issues worth considering to ensure that TSA has a program that can be defended to security critics and takes full advantage of the public’s willingness to share information in return for a more streamlined security review:

• Exactly what information are passengers authorizing airlines to turn over to TSA for a security review, and how is DHS reviewing this and other information to ensure an appropriate security review is conducted?
• How soon can individuals who do not happen to participate in the elite-level amenity program with an airline apply for their own review, or is Global Entry the only other enrollment mechanism?
• If the boarding pass is the relevant identifying document, what happens if some airlines cannot or will not participate in the program or will not facilitate individuals who are not in their elite frequent flyer clubs?
• Does the program provide a predictable time required to pass through the entire security process so that participants know when to arrive at the airport and not risk missing flights or paying large flight change fees?
• Are airlines and airports working with TSA to place the TDC review in a location where travelers do not have to endure lengthy waits just to get to the “trusted/known” line?
• Without a biometric component, does the program ensure that only confirmed low-risk travelers are provided the alternative process?
• Should TSA charge a fee for enrollees that would be plowed back into the TSA screening budget?

The fact that TSA’s budget is highly likely to remain flat while domestic flight loads increase necessitates more efficient screening. Administrator Pistole deserves great credit for beginning the process to find a better way to manage the two million “customers” TSA encounters each day. Security experts, industry officials, and Congress should each take a close look at the fledging program to make sure the country is taking full advantage of the opportunity he has initiated to change the “one-size-fits-all” screening system he inherited.

  • Anonymous

    This will be a welcome capability IF it’s different than CLEAR.

    Many people were duped into buying into CLEAR and thinking it was going to get you through security faster. It did have an express lane, but you get the same privilege if you’re elite status or first class.

    So what did CLEAR really do? They took your fingerprints and iris scan and gave you a special card with a chip (for about $200 if I remember). You went to the participating airport, gave them your card, had your scan done, then took your shoes off, laptop out and went through normal screening like everyone else. Why did they need our biometrics and do a background check??

    The question is, can there be a program that lets a pre-screened frequent traveler through airport security without the metal detector and carry-on screening? I don’t think so. There’s always a risk that a trusted/frequent traveler may bring a weapon on board an aircraft. We just can’t take that risk. So, if you can’t let them through without screening, than what does a background by TSA in advance do for you?

    I’m a frequent travler and have elite status with an airline. I know what I’m supposed to do coming through security and can get prep’d and through quickly. I suspect most of my fellow elite status travelers also know how to move quickly through security. They should open up a couple express lanes for us. One for FF’s with carry-on and one for FF’s without baggage. You’ll move a lot of people through those lanes.