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Good News and Bad News on Trusted Traveler

Robert Poole
August 18, 2008, 8:53pm

Well, there is good news and bad news on Registered Traveler (RT), the TSA-blessed and contractor-operated program that lets pre-screened members bypass long airport security lines. The big good news is that TSA announced in late July that RT is no longer a pilot program limited to 20 airports (of which 19 were in operation at the time of the announcement). Instead, all airports will be able to offer the service, greatly expanding the potential market for Verified Identity Pass (Clear) and Flo Corp. The other good news is that Delta has become the first major airline to embrace RT, after a year of bad-mouthing of the program from trade association ATA. Delta entered into a broad national partnership with Verified that has already led to the opening of Clear lanes at Delta's Terminal D at LaGuardia and Terminal 2 at JFK. Other airports will be coming on line soon at other major Delta-served airports. And Clear lanes should be in operation sometime in August for all carriers at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, offering relief from a major checkpoint congestion bottleneck. The bad news is we have two separate indications that TSA still does not see RT as part of its alleged "risk-based" approach to airport security. The original "trusted traveler" proposal from late 2001 envisioned it as enabling TSA, via background checks on RT members, to separate the sheep from the goats, enabling it to spend less time and resources on those passengers at the checkpoint because they had already been pre-screened. But as part of its July 24 announcement of RT going nationwide, the agency also informed us that it is eliminating its "security assessment" of RT applicants along with the $28 fee it's been charging for that purpose. Why? The assessment "largely duplicates the watch list matching that is conducted on all travelers every time they fly." In other words, the alleged background check has really been nothing of the sort, which is why TSA still requires RT members to go through exactly the same drill (remove shoes and jackets, empty pockets of metal, take out laptop, etc.) as all other passengers. In addition, TSA is doubling the number of airports (from 20 to 40) that will provide separate lanes for "expert" and "family" travelers, a form of competition with RT that requires no annual membership fee and no biometric ID card. That will undoubtedly cut into the demand that would otherwise exist for RT. I still value my Clear membership, and am glad my card will soon be usable at a lot more of the airports I use. But I really wish TSA would follow the lead of its DHS sibling, Customs & Border Protection, whose International Registered Traveler program appears to be the real risk-based thing. That would save additional time for RT members at the checkpoint, and would allow TSA to shift more of its screening resources to potentially higher-risk travelers.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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