Do we need a national “trusted traveler” program for airline passengers?

By | December 2nd, 2010

Topic “A” this morning is the U.S. tourism industry’s surprising call for a national “trusted traveler” program for airline passengers.

“There is a shared sense of a better, smarter way to make the air travel security system more secure and efficient for travelers,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “We believe a trusted traveler program should be the centerpiece of an enhanced air travel security process.”

Would air travelers be willing to give up their fingerprints, eye-scans and other personal information information in exchange for a shortcut through the security line? And just how much grief would we avoid by becoming part of a “trusted traveler” program? The body scans and pat downs, but not the magnetometers (like flight attendants) or the whole thing (like senior government officials). Here’s a list of current exemptions.

In a prepared statement, US Travel described the proposed program as one comprised of travelers who voluntarily share biometric and biographical information, pass robust background checks to confirm their “low-risk” nature and are verified by TSA at the time of travel. Under the proposal, they would be allowed to pass through an “alternative” security process.

“Such a program would enable the shift of security resources from a large pool of ‘low-risk’ travelers to allow a more sustained focus on a smaller pool of travelers who are not pre-screened to determine their level of risk,” it says.

Adds Dow,

The vast majority of the traveling public poses little threat to our nation’s security, yet the current approach subjects every passenger to the same security procedures. A trusted traveler program would allow us to focus more security where it is most needed, while reducing unnecessary hassles for the majority of low risk travelers. Surely the United States can find a way to implement such a common-sense approach.

But wait. Isn’t there already a “trusted traveler” program?

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Well, yes.

The TSA conducted its own two-year pilot program a few years ago. The most high-profile trusted traveler program, Clear, is currently in two airports — Orlando and Denver. (The previous incarnation of the company shut down in 2009 and the data collected from the old Clear apparently wasn’t destroyed in accordance with federal law, but that’s another story.)

The current verified identity programs are widely viewed as too expensive, and they offer too few benefits. Clear, for example, promises travelers they can “speed” through the security, but as far as I can tell, they just get to use a designated line. They must still get screened.

Is there a better way?

US Travel says a new system should screen passengers for security risks prior to checkpoints, and even before they get to the airport. This risk assessment, it says, would reduce bottlenecks at the airport and allow security resources to be diverted from the vast majority of passengers who are extremely low-risk.

That, in turn, would allow TSA to “refocus” its screening procedures towards a smaller pool of passengers whose backgrounds and travel habits are less known. It would increase public confidence in security procedures and ensure the most effective use of TSA resources, US Travel argues.