TSA to ease security delays for frequent fliers nationwide
Registered traveler program slated for June debut.
The Transportation Security Administration plans to kick off a nationwide frequent flier program by next summer and allow the private sector to manage and operate the initiative, a top official told Congress Thursday.
The program, known as Registered Traveler, had been in limbo after TSA abruptly stopped pilot programs in late September. Lawmakers, several of whom have enrolled in the initiative, have been pressuring TSA to quickly begin an initiative at the nation's busiest airports.
Registered Traveler "will reduce the burden and hassle often associated with air travel," said House Homeland Security Economic Security Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif. Registered Traveler would allow frequent travelers to bypass long security lines at airports in exchange for voluntary background checks and biographical information.
Kip Hawley, Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of TSA, said the agency would have the system up and running nationwide by June 20, 2006.
In the meantime, the agency would issue guidelines in January for collecting and storing biometric information from iris and fingerprint scans. It would also notify the flying public about the benefits of registered travel, including bypassing security lines and not removing shoes or jackets during security inspections.
In April, the agency plans to select and certify companies to issue the biometric "smartcards" and issue security changes at airports to accommodate registered travelers.
Hawley said Registered Traveler would be paid for with the fee that participating travelers will be charged.
Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, Inc., which is running a pilot program at Orlando International Airport, said in written testimony that his company's current fee of $79.95 a year is at the "low end of what our research said frequent fliers might pay." There are an estimated 6 million frequent fliers who could sign up, according to the American Association of Airport Executives.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., grilled Hawley about why a background check for a registered traveler would not include criminal history information. "I don't believe these cards will be meaningful if we don't check criminal backgrounds," DeFazio said.
Criminal background checks, Hawley replied, would delay the start of the program. The agency plans to run a traveler's information through warrant and arrests, as well as terrorist watchlist databases.
DeFazio, along with Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., also repeatedly questioned Hawley about private companies running a security program and how the companies and the government would protect travelers' personal information.
"I'm very concerned about something so loosely constructed," DeFazio said.
Hawley said TSA has not endorsed a specific business model from the pilot projects and hopes a competitive process over the next year would present a feasible plan.