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Momentum for the Transportation Security Administration's proposed Registered Traveler (RT) programhas been impacted both positively and negatively by recent developments. Depending on the day, media reports suggest the embryonic program, meant to speed voluntary enrollees through airport security checkpoints, is either doomed or poised to take off. The common thread for all affected parties--gung-ho private-sector entities, both interested and skeptical airport authorities, privacy advocates, travel management professionals and travelers themselves--is that they continue to wait for more guidance from TSA, which this month missed an initial target for launching the program.
Despite the controversies surrounding the program and reports of certain disinterested airport operators, RT's launch appears to be a matter of when, not if. All TSA has said recently is that it would "soon" issue draft RT standards for the initial phase. The timing for publishing those standards originally was June 20, then "on or around" June 2006.
"It is not moving out as fast as we would like, or others would like, due to decisions that need to be made by TSA," said Larry Zmuda, partner in the Unisys Registered Traveler program. "We think TSA is close, and we hope that sometime by the end of the summer we'll be enrolling people at airports around the country." Unisys in 2004 and 2005 operated TSA-approved pilot programs in Houston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
Another program provider, Verified Identity Pass, is prepared to expand its presence beyond the much-cited Orlando program to airports in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Jose. But TSA has not approved any airport except Orlando, despite publicly stated intentions to push forward with a pilot this summer and to authorize as many as 20 airports by year-end.
"TSA still has to publish a privacy impact statement before we can officially take information from people in a program that is government-supervised," said Verified CEO Steven Brill on June 15. "I am told that is days away." TSA this week said only that the impact statement "is forthcoming."
While many airports have taken a wait-and-see approach, others are moving forward. Denver International Airport, for example, has issued a request for proposals and "is expected to make an announcement in the first week of July," according to a Unisys spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the Board of Airport Commissioners in Los Angeles authorized an RFP last month for an RT program at Los Angeles International. Zmuda said airports in Miami, Reno and Washington also are among those "that have issued statements of interest to TSA."
As it awaits clarity from TSA, Verified has progressed farthest among the three private companies developing RT programs (also including SafLink), at least in terms of spelling out enrollment processes and forging travel management industry partnerships. According to Brill, agreements with airlines are next. "You will see from us a couple of significant airline announcements very soon," he said. "Airlines can sponsor programs if they run their own terminals."
Verified also insisted it has side-stepped the thorny issue of consequences for a rejected applicant by using a third party to track corporate accounts' enrollees.
Meanwhile, both Verified and Unisys are developing new technologies to first improve RT, and then possibly draw interest from TSA for wider deployment. They include scanners that don't require travelers to remove their shoes, devices that can detect residue on fingertips and small X-ray machines that won't necessitate the decidedly annoying requirement of extracting laptops from their cases.
"Once TSA approves our equipment, they can see how it works in our lanes," Brill explained. "If they like it, then they are not taking any risk."
"We are figuring out the best way to get those technologies certified by TSA so we can implement them and help drive enrollment," added Unisys' Zmuda. "People are going to be much more willing to enroll if they get more benefits than just getting to the front of the line."
Meanwhile, to develop its RT program, SafLink partnered with Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, Johnson Controls and ID Technology Partners. It expects to penetrate the corporate travel market via a marketing deal with Expedia Corporate Travel. SafLink this month secured another $8 million in financing, confirmed it had responded to the Denver RFP and said it would "aggressively pursue other opportunities," according to materials on its Web site.
All three private-sector program providers this spring worked to iron out details on interoperability, seen as a key component of a nationwide network of RT programs. "We put together technical specs that everyone agrees on," Brill said. "I am told that it is a really significant achievement. It is done." Zmuda was more measured, saying that while "an enormous amount of work" has been accomplished, it is not yet complete. "We are close to the finish line," he said.
While these private sector firms are keen to push forward, TSA's track record in developing new security programs is not encouraging. For example, following critical Congressional testimony by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February, the agency suspended development of Secure Flight, a prescreening program meant to identify potentially dangerous passengers while reducing the number of individuals unnecessarily selected for secondary screening. Secure Flight was designed to improve on and replace the much-maligned second-generation Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), which TSA shelved in 2004.
GAO testified again this month, telling a House of Representatives subcommittee that TSA still had much work to do in order to get Secure Flight off the ground. "TSA has not decided what passenger data elements it plans to collect, how such data will be provided by stakeholders, or how a restructuring that may result from its program rebaselining will impact its requirements for passenger data," said Cathleen Berrick, GAO director of Homeland Security and Justice issues.
"TSA remains committed to building Secure Flight with privacy at its core," according to a spokesperson, "and our goal is to do it right, rather than do it fast."
But Verified's Brill said private-sector involvement in RT is a more effective strategy for accomplishing similar goals. "We are creating a solution that CAPPS II and Secure Flight so far have been unable to implement, after having spent hundreds of millions trying," he said. "We are achieving Secure Flight at no cost to the government in a voluntary way that has the practical benefit of taking some of the hay out of the haystack."
Besides, Brill said, RT should make all affected checkpoints more efficient, for enrollees and for the traveling public. "In a business traveler-oriented airport, once our program has been out there for two or three years, we will be processing 30-55 percent of the traffic coming through those airports but won't need 30-55 percent of lanes," he explained. "Therefore, non-registered travelers will go through faster." Combined with significant interest from the corporate-travel community, those efficiency gains should attract more airports, Brill predicted. "If you took the 50 largest airports in the country, in two years from now I'd be surprised if 35 didn't have a registered traveler program."
Unisys' Zmuda agreed that airports need to understand how RT would impact throughput across all security lanes. "RT is still going to be a national program," he said, "and there still is a large number of airports, at least 20, that are excited about the program and are looking to implement it over the course of the next six months."
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