TSA seeks business plans for frequent flier program

Companies asked to submit models for nationwide registered traveler program by the end of this month.

The Transportation Security Administration wants companies to submit business models for a nationwide frequent-flier program by the end of the month in order to jumpstart plans for a privately run program.

"The goal of the [Registered Traveler] program is to increase the efficiency of the transportation security officers and security resources," the agency wrote last month in its solicitation for business plans posted online at FedBizOpps. "Airline passengers who have successfully completed a security threat assessment by TSA may be expedited through security-checkpoint processing and allow security resources to focus on unknown travelers."

Kip Hawley, the Homeland Security Department assistant secretary in charge of TSA, told Congress in November that the agency plans to select companies by April to issue biometric "smart cards" to participants and deploy the screening program by summer.

To do so, the agency last month called for "critical functions" inherent to the proposed Registered Traveler business models, including technology to capture travelers' biometric information. The criteria would include scanned fingerprints or digital photographs; "smart cards" embedded with biometrics and biographic information; and data storage and transfer capabilities.

Registered Traveler has become a popular, albeit contentious idea. It had been in limbo after TSA abruptly stopped pilot programs in September. Since then, several members of Congress and industry representatives have been pressuring TSA to create a nationwide program to help reduce the burden and hassle of airline travel.

The system would let frequent travelers bypass long security lines at airports in exchange for voluntary background checks and biographical information. The initiative would be paid for with the fee that participating travelers will be charged.

A pilot program at Orlando International Airport last year charged $79.95 a year and found the cost at the low end of what travelers would pay to participate. There are an estimated 6 million frequent fliers who could join, according to the American Association of Airport Executives.

While many lawmakers have sought the system, others have expressed concern about private companies running a security program and how they would protect personal information. Their concerns are shared by civil rights and privacy groups that oppose the initiative.

In last month's solicitation for information, the agency said it would use a private database run by airports to store and transfer Registered Traveler information between TSA and companies enrolling passengers.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has testified against the database, saying it would not be subject to safeguards in the 1974 Privacy Act. The law requires agencies to let people access, and correct, information that the government collects about them.

But Hawley responded said TSA would establish a redress process for travelers who are rejected from the program and would address privacy concerns for travelers.

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