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The nation's largest Registered Traveler program operator, Clear, on June 22 abruptly ceased all operations at 18 airports, leaving in doubt the short-term viability of the front-of-the-line airport screening program initially created by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Precipitated by the inability for Clear parent Verified Identity Pass to secure necessary funding, the shutdown came as the U.S. Congress debates whether Registered Traveler once again should be used as a risk-assessment tool, a function that TSA removed from the program last summer.
Another RT provider, Flo Corp. on its Web site stated it is "currently working with other participants in the industry as well as the Transportation Security Administration to analyze the implications of this [Clear shutdown] announcement and to formulate a plan for the advancement of the program." According to Travel Weekly, the company continues to offer dedicated RT lanes in Reno-Tahoe, Nev. A Flo spokesman did not return multiple calls seeking clarification.
Meanwhile, the third RT program provider, Vigilant Systems, on its Web site said it would continue to operate dedicated RT lanes in Jacksonville, Fla., and Louisville, Ky., accepting its own members, as well as those registered by Flo and Clear.
Clear aspired to provide RT nationwide. Looking at the potential now for that level of development, TSA on its blog this week considered whether another company would take up the program. "Good question," TSA answered. "This is purely a market-driven, private-sector venture offered in partnership with airports and airlines. Another vender could potentially take up the program."
Clear said it would not provide to its 250,000 customers refunds for the annual enrollment fee and added that "the personally identifiable information that customers provided to Clear may not be used for any purpose other than a Registered Traveler program operated by a Transportation Security Administration-authorized service provider."
The National Business Travel Association has been a longtime supporter of the RT program. "We urge TSA, in cooperation with U.S. carriers, to keep the program alive and make certain it becomes a true risk-management tool for secure and efficient air travel," according to a statement attributed to NBTA president Kevin Maguire.
Questioned From The Start
RT since its inception has been dogged by questions about the benefits it provides. While it enables paying members to bypass regular security lines and pass through checkpoints more quickly, elite-level loyalty program members of several airlines (perhaps those most interested in RT, given the frequency of their travel) already enjoy such a benefit at many airports via special lanes.
Many also doubted RT's value--at least $100 for an annual membership--given the program's limited accessibility (available at about 20 airports at its peak), while some questioned how carefully operators protected members' biographic, biometric (fingerprints and iris scans) and credit card information.
Nevertheless, RT appeared to gain momentum between 2006 and 2008. Operators Clear and FLO began onsite corporate enrollments and amassed marketing partners--including airlines, travel management companies and others--as the program became available in more airports.
But some ambitions were never realized. Verified Identity Pass, for example, claimed Clear would become a testing laboratory for new technologies that would enhance security and streamline the checkpoint process, including scanners that would allow travelers to leave on their shoes, devices that could detect residue on fingertips and small X-ray machines that wouldn't require extracting laptops from their cases. While such technologies still may be in development--and ultimately used at all airports--they never provided the boost for RT that proponents anticipated.
TSA Decision Imperiled Program
By last summer, TSA evidently saw no promise in a security role for RT. In a July 2008 notice published in the Federal Register, TSA wrote that "current technology is insufficient to allow anyone, even travelers who provide biographic and biometric information and undergo a TSA security threat assessment, to bypass the minimum screening procedures at airport security checkpoints." It also concluded that "an individual's successful completion of a TSA threat assessment did not eliminate the possibility that the individual might initiate an action that threatens the lives of other passengers. Therefore, screening of these individuals should remain the same as screening of other passengers."
That had, for the time being, effectively ended the risk-assessment function of RT, making the program a purely front-of-the-line membership club. [TSA also decided, however, that RT membership cards would be accepted at airports as official federal identification, giving proponents one reason to cheer. Now, though, Clear cards no longer are accepted as a primary form of identification.]
Two days after TSA's announcement, a laptop owned by Verified Identity Pass with pre-enrollment information on 33,000 new customers went missing. Though the lost laptop was recovered within days, the episode gave critics already worried about data privacy more reason to publicly object to the program.
This month, just weeks before Clear shut down, the U.S. House of Representatives appeared to breathe new life into RT. It passed the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act, which would require TSA, based on the determination of the TSA administrator, to "reinstate an initial and continuous security threat assessment program as part of the Registered Traveler enrollment process."
A Fresh Start?
"We tried having that program for members, but it has fallen on some hard times," said Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee, D, Texas, chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection during a May 6 mark-up hearing on the legislation. "This amendment will give it an opportunity to be studied again."
The legislation now is in the hands of the U.S. Senate. But with Clear's collapse, the short-term viability of RT, and the fate of the company's 250,000 memberships, is far from certain.
"Apparently, not enough people saw any real value to the concept," according to a Boyd Group International perspective posted June 29 to the consultancy's Web site, referring to Clear's shutdown. "Clear was one of those Bush-era illusion programs that, to the average passenger, seemed to represent a security improvement. As an enhancement to protect the public, it's just more smoke and mirrors."
Registered Traveler Timeline
Registered Traveler is mandated by Congress as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act.
TSA begins developing RT.
Clear launches first U.S. RT program in Orlando.
TSA says it would again solicit public commentson RT.
TSA misses an initial target for launching the program.
The Air Transport Association urges airports not to endorse a nationwide RT program. ATA president and CEO James May said airlines "cannot afford to proceed with a program that is of such questionable benefit and ultimately may disadvantage travelers."
Verified Identity Pass and British Airways announce a marketing deal for the Clear program, marking the first time an airline agreed to partner with an RT program provider.
TSA issues long-awaited draft standards for those parties interested in operating RT programs, calling those standards "an important milestone" in its plan to roll out a nationwide program.
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives criticizes RT guidelines, specifically objecting to the lack of a redress process for denied applicants and an "unexplained" provision allowing program vendors to collect more personal information than TSA requires.
TSA formally approves the Clear program for a national implementation.
Clear launches in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York JFK and San Jose, Calif., and announces plans for Newark.
Transportation Security Administration director Kip Hawley tells a U.S. Senate Committee on aviation security that RT "doesn't quite get us to the level of comfort where we could change the checkpoint process radically."
Hawley tells Congress that RT "is not now an effective operation tool against the 'clean-skinned' terrorist (a terrorist without criminal history or identification on a watch list), and therefore we have not reduced the security process for RT passengers. We are not in a position to prime the pump on RT at the expense of the general passenger."
Flo Corp. announces the acquisition of Unisys Corp.'s registered traveler business.
Flo Corp. begins public trading on the OTC Bulletin Board. "With under 70,000 registered traveler members enrolled nationwide, we believe that only 1 percent of the addressable market has been registered thus far," according to Flo president and CEO Glenn Argenbright.
TSA decides to end the RT trial phase, open the program beyond the initial 20-airport cap and halt security prescreening threat assessments of RT participants because it "largely duplicates the watch list matching that is conducted on all travelers every time they fly." TSA also says it soon will accept RT program cards as official federal identification at airports.
TSA prohibits Verified Identity Pass from enrolling new Clear participants after the company loses a laptop with personal information on 33,000 enrollees. Days later, VIP finds the laptop. TSA allows Clear to restart enrollments.
The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection approves an amendment in the proposed Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act that calls for a re-examination of the Registered Traveler program. The amendment would require TSA "to consider the Registered Traveler program's role in a risk-based aviation security program."
The U.S. House of Representatives passes the TSA Authorization Act and sends it to the U.S. Senate.
Clear ceases all operations.
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