Commentary

Registered Traveler Breakthrough Would Improve Airport Security

The bill the House passed earlier this month to reauthorize the Transportation Security Administration contains big news for the Registered Traveler program. If the Senate follows suit, Registered Traveler could be turned into what it was originally intended to be—a risk-based program that enables TSA to re-focus its screening resources away from lower-risk travelers. That would mean a faster and less-hassle trip through airport security for potentially millions of Registered Traveler members like me.

As you may remember, in 2001 when Congress enacted the Aviation & Transportation Security Act creating the TSA, it explicitly called for the new agency to establish a “trusted traveler” program to expedite the screening of those passengers who pass a background check and enroll in such a program. As pointed out in the report on the current bill from the House Committee on Homeland Security, “Congress had intended for such trusted traveler programs to be utilized as a risk-management tool.”

When TSA created the Registered Traveler program, it initially used the information on people’s application forms to do a “security threat assessment” consisting of checking the applicant’s name against a wants & warrants database, an immigration database, and its own terrorism watch list. It never submitted the applicant’s fingerprints to the FBI, however, for a criminal history background check, which is done routinely for those airport employees who must be cleared via this check in order to have unescorted access to secure portions of the airport at which they work.

I pointed out this double standard. TSA actually stopped doing even the wants & warrants and immigration checks in 2007, arguing that Registered Traveler is merely an identity verification program, not a security program, and rescinding the charge it had levied on Registered Traveler service providers for that minimal background check. Consequently, Registered Traveler members must still go t hrough the identical checkpoint screening process as ordinary travelers—which saves TSA no resources that it could apply to beefed-up security elsewhere.

What the House measure does is require the TSA, within 120 days, to convert Registered Traveler into a risk-management tool by reinstating a threat-assessment program for Registered Traveler (RT) applicants, to be supplemented by private-sector background checks carried out by RT providers. But it also gives the TSA an out, if the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security determines that the revamped RT program cannot be integrated into risk-based security screening operations. A separate provision of the bill requires TSA to develop alternative screening procedures for those RT members who hold Top Secret security clearances, regardless of the agency’s decision regarding general revamping of the program.

One knowledgeable source tells me that the Senate Commerce Committee has in the past been supportive of RT as a risk-based program, so there is a reasonable likelihood of favorable action in the Senate, now that the House bill including the RT provisions has passed the full House. The only change I would recommend the Senate make is to include submitting RT applicants’ fingerprints to the FBI for the same criminal history background check that applies to airport employees.

As of now, RT is in operation at 21 U.S. airports, and the largest operator—Verified Identity Pass–has 260,000 members in its Clear program. Those numbers could soar if RT members could bypass much of the rigamarole at the security checkpoint.

Reason Foundation’s Airport Security Research

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.