WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration said Thursday it will test a program to pre-screen a small group of select air travelers who volunteer more personal information about themselves so they can be vetted to get faster screening at airport checkpoints.
The new program represents the Obama administration's first attempt at a more risk-based, intelligence-driven passenger screening program that could respond to travelers' complaints that the government is not using common sense when it screens all passengers at airports in the same manner.
The change comes amid a typically busy summer travel season and on the heels of a public outcry over TSA screeners giving enhanced pat-downs to children and the elderly, people who ostensibly pose no security threat.
The test program was expected to begin sometime this fall. It applies only to a small number of frequent travelers who are U.S. citizens. The TSA said it anticipates that between 5,000 and 8,000 travelers per day will participate in the trial.
The voluntary test program covers selected travelers enrolled in Delta Air Lines' frequent-flier program or three other government-trusted traveler programs – known as Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI – involving people who travel regularly through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airports; and travelers enrolled in American Airlines' frequent-flier program, or the three other government programs, who travel regularly through Miami International and Dallas-Fort Worth International airports. There is no cost to participate in the test program.
"These improvements will enable our officers to focus their efforts on higher risk areas," said TSA Administrator John Pistole.
The concern with any of these expedited programs is that someone could pose as someone else, for instance by using false identification or an ID belonging to another person.
The TSA does not have access to enough information to truly authenticate a traveler's identity, said J. Bennet Waters, president of Clear, a secure identity verification company operating in some airports. Waters, a former senior TSA and homeland security official, praised the Obama administration's announcement but said commercially available data under a public-private partnership should be used to validate the person is who he or she says she is. For privacy reasons, the TSA is not allowed to access that information.
This pre-screening test would be on top of the existing pre-screening for all passengers who travel to, from or within the U.S.
Currently these travelers must provide their full names as they appear on their government identifications, as well as their birthdates and gender. This allows the government to compare passenger manifests with government databases to spot possible terrorists before they board a plane, and in some cases before they arrive at the airport. Frequent-flier programs include more than those three identification fields. For instance, personal information provided in Delta's frequent-flier program includes the traveler's home address, email address or phone number, and preferred language.
For security reasons, the TSA will not say what specific screening measures travelers who participate in the test might avoid at airports. And participation in the program in no way exempts the travelers from any security measure, the agency said. Further, someone enrolled in the program may not receive the exact same level of screening each time he or she flies.
Amid strong criticism for months, Pistole has said his agency must find smarter ways to perform risk-based screening based on intelligence and move away from a one-size-fits-all plan so that screeners can focus on travelers the government knows the least about.
But Pistole also wants to manage the expectations of the traveling public.
"It's a complex issue, and so I want to basically under-promise and over-deliver," he told senators last month.
Allowing certain frequent travelers to speed through security should help all air travelers, said Geoff Freeman, executive president of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry trade group.
"It should be a win for the traveler who doesn't even enroll because you've removed people from the line, you've sped up the entire process," Freeman said, adding that his organization would like checkpoint security to include biometrics, such as fingerprints or eye scans, to improve security. He also said any future program should be available to all travelers, and not just frequent fliers.
But Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said the pilot program won't noticeably speed up the security process because it is so small.
The airlines and the Customs and Border Protection agency, which runs the three government-trusted traveler programs in the trial, will contact the eligible travelers to ask them whether they would participate in the program, the TSA said. If the traveler agrees, information the traveler provided to the airline through the frequent-flier program would be shared with the government to do enhanced security vetting.
"Passengers with an extensive travel history are more likely to be eligible," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said.
The TSA briefed airlines and others in the aviation industry on Thursday about the test program.
Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, said the TSA has not told the company specifically which tiers in its frequent-flier program will be eligible, but the company believes the pilot program will be limited to elite members of the AAdvantage, which typically require at least 25,000 miles in one year.
Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said the airline would tell members of its SkyMiles program about the offer and was eager to take part in the pilot.
"We're always looking for ways to improve our customer experience, and security is a large component of that," she said.
The agency plans to eventually expand the test program to United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, US Airways, and Alaska and Hawaiian airlines at other airports.
Speaking to lawmakers in March, Pistole said enrollment in some kind of program like this would not entitle that person to expedited screening.
"It would be a likelihood – perhaps even a high likelihood – that they would receive some type of streamlined processing screening at a checkpoint," he said.
___ Associated Press writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.
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