The Transportation Security Administration is launching a pilot program for frequent fliers to reduce the hassle of air travel and free up TSA employees to focus on higher-risk passengers. The voluntary program, to be conducted at four major U.S. airports, comes after the TSA’s screening procedures—offering passengers a choice between undergoing full-body image screening and enhanced pat-downs—earned intense criticism this past holiday season.
TSA, along with the partnering airlines and Customs and Border Protection, will work to determine which passengers will be eligible to participate in the pilot program. Even though some passengers could be eligible for expedited screening, all participants would still be subject to security checks and random screenings. "This pilot initiative will help inform TSA's next steps as the agency considers future risk-based, intelligence-driven security measures that would enable travelers to volunteer more information about themselves prior to flying," the agency said in a release.
"These improvements will enable our officers to focus their efforts on higher risk areas," TSA Administrator John Pistole said in the release. "Enhancing identity-based screening is another common sense step in the right direction as we continue to strengthen overall security, and improve the passenger experience whenever possible."
TSA outlined its plans to partner with CBP to expedite screening for some passengers at certain airports in a conference call Thursday afternoon with aviation stakeholders. Frequent fliers from Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airports who are U.S. citizens will be among the first eligible for the program. American Airlines' frequent fliers traveling through Miami International and Dallas/Fort Worth International airports will be eligible as well. TSA plans to expand this pilot to include United Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, US Airways, Alaska Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines, as well as additional airports, once the program is deemed operational.
"If the data or the findings are that this is an efficient and effective way to move the agency forward, then the question would be when and how to expand," TSA spokesman Kawika Riley told National Journal.
Riley said the plan will be open to those with a significant flying history in their respective airlines. The program will also be open to certain passengers who have enrolled in CBP's Trusted Traveler Programs—including Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS. Because passengers often need short in-person interviews, criminal history checks, and biometric screening to qualify for these programs, the TSA pilot program's participants are highly vetted as lower-risk passengers already.
The TSA will be able to pre-screen and identify low-risk passengers in part by accessing data under the Secure Flight Final Rule, which it has traditionally used to identify watch-listed passengers, Riley said. Additionally, as part of this rule, members of approved programs could submit their own unique program numbers to verify their identify to the TSA.
The agency does not yet plan to introduce its own biometric screening component to identify passengers in the airports.
A special bar code will be included on passengers' airline tickets, which will verify passengers' participation in the program at document scanners in the airport, said Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group representing the $704 billion travel industry. USTA has spent over a year developing its own outline for a trusted traveler screening program, in which passengers would volunteer personal biometric data—possibly including iris scans or fingerprints—and answer questions about where they work and travel in exchange for being identified as low-risk passengers. They would also undergo a background check compared to criminal and other databases.
The TSA's plan, Hansen told National Journal, "is an important first step."
"Eventually we have much grander ideas about what the program should look like and how many people should be enrolled. But at this time they need to figure out the operational complexities and retrain some people.... We see this as a positive first step," Hansen said. “This needs to be done from a security standpoint and from a budget standpoint."