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Comment on TSA frequent flier program spurs industry alarm

Program participants might not get the benefit of relaxed screenings, agency administrator says.

Airport and industry officials expressed alarm Wednesday that the Transportation Security Administration might limit benefits for airline passengers who join the agency's Registered Traveler program.

Officials said during a business forum sponsored by the National Chamber Foundation that they are concerned by comments made by TSA Administrator Edmund (Kip) Hawley that Registered Traveler participants might not get relaxed screening benefits. The Boston Globe reported Hawley's comments Tuesday.

"We are not going to let the Registered Traveler program, which is a great idea, become a potential tool for terrorists to beat the system period," Hawley said.

Passengers who join the program will voluntarily give TSA their personal information, undergo a background check and pay a fee in exchange for benefits. Business officials are particularly interested in Registered Traveler due to the expectation that they will be able to bypass or quickly pass through screening lines. Hawley said: "We are not going to significantly reduce security for people who would meet that background check" in the United States.

Andrew Howell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for homeland security, said Hawley's comments "add fuel to the fire" over what kind of benefits passengers will get through the program, which has been slow to develop. It is expected to begin this summer. "This is not compatible with our vision of [Registered Traveler]," he said.

"If TSA doesn't come out with something that's workable and has realized benefits, then I think it would have effectively killed the program before it's started," said Vicki Tigwell, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

But Steven Brill, president of Verified Identity Pass, said TSA will give benefits to Registered Traveler participants. He said Hawley has made it clear that participants will have a faster screening process and expedited benefits at screening lanes. His company hopes to sell technology for the program to airports.

Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, said TSA has to provide "real benefits" through the program, rather than "feel-good benefits." He indicated a frustration with TSA's leadership and called on industry to help make changes at the agency. "We need, probably, to fix TSA in parallel, otherwise it's not going to work as it should," he said.

"I think it's tragic that a federal agency should take the position that everybody is a problem unless they can prove otherwise," Schefer added. "I think it's ridiculous that we cannot have a safe Registered Traveler program. Part of the problem is that we've got an agency [that] instead of being results-oriented is process-oriented."