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