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A few months after its launch, the U.S. Transportation
Security Administration's PreCheck pilot program appears close to attaining
permanent status. PreCheck provides pre-screened frequent travelers access to a
dedicated airport security lane where they may not have to remove their shoes
or belts or their laptops from their bags. TSA administrator John Pistole and BTN's Chris Davis this month discussed the
program's development, including Pistole's talks with top airline executives.
An edited transcript follows.
Why did you decide to go this particular route for
We looked at a number of options, and there were a number of things we considered in terms of actual implementation and what would be required. The bottom line was the current configuration of TSA PreCheck in my opinion was the best way to move forward in the immediate [term] the things we could accomplish in 2011 in terms of the start of the pilot programs, and really what we could accomplish in 2012 as we move from a pilot concept to a program concept and make it replicable in a number of airports around the country. As an example, some people have asked about biometrics—you have biometrics as part of Global Entry; would we want biometrics as part of PreCheck as an additional layer of security? In an ideal world not constrained by budget or time, absolutely, that would be a nice enhancement. But when we looked at the cost and the time involved in putting it in place initially, I didn't want perfect to be the enemy of good. I wanted to get something in terms of a known or trusted traveler program, so those that we know more about because they are willing to share more could have a different physical screening experience.
PreCheck travelers can keep their shoes and belts on and their laptops in the bag, correct?
Yes, and that is a great benefit to expediting travel, and they are also allowed to keep their personal liquids and gels—still the small sizes—in their bag with their laptops. I don't think we've publicized this, but they get to walk through the metal detector in all likelihood versus the advanced imaging technology.
So it's a fairly significant time-saver for that traveler.
Absolutely, anywhere from a few minutes to quite a bit longer, depending on which airport and checkpoints. I think we've had more than 200,000 people now go through, obviously with a number of repeat travelers. As that multiplies, with the expansion of airports and checkpoints, each person's time is then saved. We believe it to be a good security policy, because we can spend less time on people we have more confidence about—no guarantees; it's not a 100 percent guaranteed business we're in—and then spend more time on the people we know least about, or that we know the most because they're on the terrorist watchlist. We're looking for that terrorist as a needle in a haystack; we're reducing the size of the haystack with those we have greater confidence in and who don't pose a threat.
Since the pilot actually launched, have there been any tweaks or modifications, now that there's some real-world experience?
Just working with the airports and the airlines—American and Delta, so far—on where that dedicated lane should take place. We have more than 450 airports in the United States, and as the saying goes, if you've seen one, you've seen one. We need to work with the airport authorities and the airlines uniquely on the configuration of the dedicated lane. We'll continue to tweak and modify.
There is cost incurred by the airlines in reconfiguring the barcodes on their boarding passes to accommodate this. How did you approach them to be a part of the program?
I talked with the CEOs of five majors, just to let them know what we were doing and then working with their individual situations. What it came down to was corporate interest, and they all did [have interest], and their individual situations. For example, United and Continental are going through the merger, and their IT systems were configured in a way that did not make sense to be on the front end. It came down to issues like that.
The pilot wasn't designed to be American and Delta alone, in other words.
It was the pragmatic result of saying, "OK, there's interest across the industry, how can we best move forward?" Some might say, "Let's wait until everybody's ready," and we could have done that. Obviously, there are some concerns about a competitive advantage or disadvantage by going this way and we have no intent of that, but we simply wanted to move forward on as timely a basis as possible.
Were American and Delta able to sign on right away?
Yes. They've invested some time and money reconfiguring their IT systems, and so they had to make that corporate decision as to how this lined up with their other priorities.
US Airways and United have now agreed to be part.
Yes. We're working with both their IT and their other folks as to where they'd like to have it rolled out first and what the timing of it is. Those discussions are continuing.
Are the airports a trickier sell, given the differences in configurations?
It's been a challenge and an opportunity. We've got the five now, and we've announced Salt Lake and JFK for sometime in the first quarter of 2012, and then Minneapolis and LAX [introduced late last month]. That's nine. It's just a matter of talking to the airlines and figuring out the opportunities. There's a lot of considerations, and it's about figuring out with the airlines and the airport authorities what makes sense.
How does this relate to private registered traveler efforts?
The original programs were a front-of-the-queue privilege in exchange for payment. Of course, what we're doing differently is a paradigm shift to using a risk-based, intelligence-driven approach. There are still some private proposals and considerations out there on how that could be facilitated, and we are open to those suggestions and ideas. When I made the suggestion to move forward with just PreCheck, the beauty of it from my perspective was that it was budget-neutral, meaning I didn't have to go back to Congress and ask for additional money. We could do it on my authority, and if the airlines were willing to pay, that made it much more timely. Whether Clear or another company chimes in with a proposal that makes sense to us and the industry, we would consider that.
How do you see 2012 in terms of the development of the program, and what do you see as the endgame?
We're interested in expanding it as broadly as possible, moving from the pilot concept to making it a formal part of TSA. I'm committed to doing that, so I would hope that we'd go beyond the nine by the end of the first quarter to seeing additional airports added monthly, so that we could be in dozens of airports by the end of the year, some of them with multiple checkpoints. I do want to manage expectations; just because we've announced LAX, it is at a limited number of checkpoints. It's something we're committed to expand as broadly as possible, as efficiently as possible, while maintaining the high level of security that we have to have.
What has to happen for this to move to an official program from a pilot program?
That's basically an internal decision. I have to weigh the opportunity cost of moving people to the dedicated lanes, and what can't we do otherwise. I've made that decision informally in my own mind, I just have to work through the paperwork and advise others of that.
The behavioral screening initiative has expanded too, recently, to Detroit.
We're still gathering data on that. I have to weigh from a business perspective what opportunity costs are involved and the literal cost of moving people to a dedicated function of enhanced behavioral detection. Before I expand that any broader, that will continue as a pilot program to gather additional data.
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