WASHINGTON -- A few lucky frequent flyers will start whizzing through airport checkpoints next week under a pilot program that federal security officials hope will lead to shorter lines for most airline passengers while allowing screeners to focus on real, intelligence-based threats to aviation.
In a move announced earlier this summer, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will launch a "known traveler" program at four airports where Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have hubs: Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Detroit. Under the pilot, the airlines will ask a few thousand of their best customers to sign up for a faster screening process.
"We are looking at how to expedite the screening process for travelers we know and trust the most, and travelers who are willing to voluntarily share more information with us before they travel," said TSA administrator John Pistole at a recent conference on aviation security since the 9/11 attacks. "Doing so will then allow our officers to more effectively prioritize screening and focus our resources on those passengers we know the least about and those of course on watch lists."
Selected passengers must volunteer to go through a pre-screening process, which may include giving up tons of personal information as well as biometric data that includes fingerprints and iris scans. If they pass, the information will be embedded in the bar code on their boarding pass the next time they travel and they will be directed to a special, faster lane. Passengers will not know in advance if they are eligible for expedited screening,
The pilot program also will include certain members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's trusted traveler programs. More than one million pre-approved international travelers have signed up for pre-screening, paying $100 for five years for the privilege of getting through customs without the usual hassles.
While the "known-traveler" test is free for now, similar fees are expected if the program is expanded to other airlines' frequent flyers and hubs.
"Travel history and travel patterns are good indicators," Erik Hansen of the U.S. Travel Association recently told MarketWatch. "If somebody is taking a business trip three times a week from Pittsburgh to New York three weeks every months, then that's probably a good indication that person doesn't pose a threat."
Not that such a person -- who is likely to be older and more affluent than less-frequent travelers -- should expect that being asked into the program is entry into an "entitlement club," as the TSA website puts it. Nor, said Pistole, should they assume their days of standing in long security lines are over.
"Nothing will ever guarantee expedited screening," Pistole cautioned earlier this month. "Passengers will always be subject to random, unpredictable measures."