TSA Plans To Pilot Expedited Airport Security Screening - Business Travel News

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TSA Plans To Pilot Expedited Airport Security Screening

July 27, 2011 - 10:40 AM ET

By Jay Boehmer

As business travelers know, there often are two components to the airport security waiting game: first, a queue that leads to a document checker who glances at boarding passes and IDs; then, a subsequent and separate line that culminates in the actual security screening. While some airlines and private-sector registered traveler providers offer fast-track programs to address the first potential chokepoint, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is embarking on a pilot to speed the second. If, and when, the two meet remains in question.

TSA this fall expects to begin piloting its new trusted-traveler expedited security-screening program with frequent flyers of American Airlines or Delta Air Lines and U.S. citizen participants in U.S. Customs and Border Protection trusted-traveler programs at airports in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami. TSA has yet to specify how it intends to expedite the screening process for participants, though a source noted the potential for travelers to keep shoes on their feet and laptops in their bags. However, program participants still would wait in the same lines as other travelers as they approach document checkers, a TSA spokesman said.

"Passengers would wait in line like they typically would at the checkpoint, then at the travel document checker, TSA would have technology that would be able to read the boarding pass and identify those passengers as pilot participants," the TSA spokesman said of the planned process. TSA expects to dedicate one security-screening lane at each airport for the initial pilot, but the screening technology in those lanes would not differ from those used in general lanes, the spokesman confirmed.

While the aim of the program is to expedite screening, TSA is making few promises, as it stressed in a statement it would incorporate "random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport, and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening."

Furthermore, pilot participants may not be steered by document checkers to that dedicated lane every time they travel, according to an email sent to some AA frequent flyers, which noted, "TSA will determine who participates in the trial on a per-flight segment basis."

Still, TSA estimates "a population of 5,000 to 8,000 passengers per day" will be screened on an expedited basis in the first phase of the pilot, according to a spokesman. "Once operationally ready," TSA expects to expand the pilot to other airports with Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.

Both American and Delta have notified a subset of their frequent flyer bases about the program, requesting their consent if they wish to be considered.

"We do not have a lot of details at the moment as to exactly how it will work, though we believe the concept has definite merit," according to an AA spokesman. "The announcement was driven largely by the TSA, and many of the details are still not worked out or announced."

The spokesman added, "We do know that certain premium-level AAdvantage members will have the option to opt in for consideration by TSA." In an email to some frequent flyers, Delta noted, "Details on the opt-in process will follow in future communications."

To participate in the program, participants first must be vetted by TSA. The particulars of that process remain unclear, though Pistole in a statement suggested participants would "volunteer more information about themselves prior to flying."

Life In The Fast Lane

While TSA's efforts aim to speed the actual security screening, airlines and other private-sector firms have worked to get users there faster—often for a fee.

Lending his support to TSA's proposed pilot, registered traveler provider Clear president Bennet Waters suggested his company's approach is complementary, not conflicting, with TSA's. "The real future of a robust and wide-scale approach to risk-based travel is going to require some sort of partnership between the government and the private sector," he said in an interview this month.

As for now, a TSA spokesperson noted the pending pilot program "is separate" from the "front-of-the-line programs" offered by private-sector registered traveler operators.

Still, Waters views Clear as a potential partner, citing the company's experience in biometric identity verification. That verification process, active in airports in Denver and Orlando, enables users "to bypass the security document checker process, which is typically where the long queue is, and go immediately to physical screening," Waters said. Clear members pay $179 per year for that benefit, though bulk sales and corporate discounts can bring that cost down.

While most of the largest U.S. airlines offer some expedited security checkpoint feature for their most loyal frequent flyers, some also are launching fee-based programs that offer quicker access to other travelers.

For example, JetBlue last month began selling as part of a bundle what vice president of revenue management and sales Dennis Corrigan called "essentially a fast pass" at security checkpoints at 15 airports, including Los Angeles, New York JFK and San Francisco, with plans to expand to more. JetBlue "later this year" plans to make that program available for stand-alone purchase.

US Airways in April disclosed plans that it too was prepping an option for passengers to pay for priority access to security screening and early boarding. Those ancillary services conceptually are similar to fee-based streamlined airport processes offered by American, Southwest and United.

The Industry Responds

Industry groups, including the American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Travel Coalition and the Global Business Travel Association generally applauded TSA's trusted-traveler pilot program.

BTC's praise, however, came with conditions. "Few airline and security industry experts would quarrel with the observation that treating all passengers as equal threats to the aviation system is ineffective and wasteful," according to a statement. However, TSA would need to address the shortcomings of its previous attempt at a registered traveler program, which "failed on virtually every level," according to BTC.

ASTA called the plan "a solid step in the right direction," according to CEO Tony Gonchar, while GBTA called the pilot "an important next step in advancing our air transit system."

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