The old Clear registered traveler line at Washington Dulles International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson
When it comes to airports and handling security, I sometimes feel like Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day.” It just seems to me that we keep seeing the same variations on programs that will allow trusted travelers to get through airport security with less of a hassle.
On Thursday, Politico published a story, “TSA background-check contract stirs interest.” In the story, the reporters note that although the Transportation Security Administration hasn’t made a formal announcement, it has put out feelers for companies interested in doing background checks for travelers who apply for the Pre Check program. Currently, only those who are frequent travelers of participating airlines or members of existing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs including Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI are eligible for Pre Check. But Pre Check is currently a random process.
According to the Politico story, TSA wants to expand Pre Check and allow what they call low-risk travelers to go through checkpoints and allow screeners to focus on higher potential threats. To that end, the agency is reading through white papers submitted by private companies who want the business.
I find two of the names touted in the story quite interesting. First is Clear, the original registered traveler company. It was unveiled as a pilot program in July 2005 at Orlando International Airport. Back then, passengers paid $99 a year for a biometric card that gave them a separate security checkpoint line that would get them through lines more quickly. The program was championed by Congress, but TSA was very slow to embrace the program despite taking it out of the pilot phase in January 2007.
One of the big benefits of Clear was using scanning machines that allowed passengers to keep on their shoes and jackets and keep laptops in their bags. But TSA halted use of the machines, saying they needed more testing. The price of the card nearly doubled but TSA continued to stymie the program, stopping background checks on Clear users in 2009. Then it started requiring RT members show government-approved identification, rendering their biometric cards pretty much useless.
The second company mentioned in the article was The Chertoff Group, owned by former Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. In a chat with aviation bloggers (including me) back in August 2009, Chertoff said in my Aviation Week post that DHS wants to be careful that RT does not become one that says if one pays more money, they go to the head of the line, Chertoff observed. “That is between private vendors and airports. The government shouldn’t give an advantage to the economically well off in air travel,” he stated. “We should be limiting ourselves to focusing on security values.”
In July 2007, then-TSA Administrator Kip Hawley spoke before the House Homeland Subcommittee on Transportation Security and said: “Just as relying on frequent flyer miles isn’t enough, in the age of the clean-skin suicide bomber, just the absence of a negative is no longer enough. Once we define trusted, that provides a blueprint for vulnerability. And the security risk introduced at R.T. becomes a risk for every passenger, because what we make easy for one becomes easy for many.We need many layers of security to mitigate the risk of defeating anyone. We want to increase the level of security, not decrease it. And after prioritizing our security initiatives based on risk, TSA decided that taxpayer resources are best applied to more critical needs than Registered Traveler.”
And so now it appears the pendulum is swinging yet again, with TSA looking at the subject of a true trusted traveler program. So it will be interesting to see what TSA’s next move will be once it finishes reviewing the white papers on an expansion of Pre Check. So watch this space!!