Improving upon status quo in airport security

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Eben PeckWe've all been there. A little late getting out of the house, you've successfully run the gantlet of getting to the airport and your bag checked. Then, with the clock ticking down to your departure, you hit a brick wall, in the form of an endless line at the security checkpoint. Every person ahead of you, regardless of how often they fly or what risk they might pose, must present their identification; take off their coat, shoes and belt; empty their pockets; and remove their laptop, among many other things.

Banging your head against the proverbial wall and mentally calculating how and when you are going to reach your destination, you would agree with the sentiments of a 2011 U.S. Travel Association-convened blue ribbon commission on aviation security, which noted that "the country that put a man on the moon [and] invented the Internet ... can and must do better."

Since 9/11, ASTA has been at the forefront of the debate over how best to protect our nation's aviation system while facilitating the movement of business and leisure travelers alike.

This column seeks to identify problems with the status quo and the moves afoot toward creating a risk-based system that will not only strengthen the nation's aviation security system but also improve the passenger experience.

Air travel is the cornerstone of the U.S. travel and tourism industry. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2009 civil aviation supported more than 10 million jobs, contributed $1.3 trillion in total economic activity and accounted for 5.2% of total U.S. gross domestic product, and air carriers operating in U.S. airspace transported 793 million passengers -- more than 2 million trips per day. Twelve percent of all leisure travel and 18% of all business travel is conducted by air, and air travel generates indirect economic activity, as well, totaling nearly $250 billion in 2008.

In the debate over aviation security, the stakes for ASTA members and their clients couldn't be higher. Because a considerable volume of most travel agencies' business depends upon the sale of tickets for passenger air travel -- $60 billion worth in 2011 alone, according to PhoCusWright -- an aviation security experience so burdensome that it drives people to forgo flying is potentially devastating to our members' bottom lines.

By the simplest measure, the current system works. Thankfully, there have been no successful terrorist attacks against the U.S. aviation system since 2001.

Screening ProcessDig a little deeper, though, and it is not clear that we are striking the right balance between securing the system and facilitating the movement of passengers. Intrusive, inefficient and inconsistent security screening is, according to the U.S. Travel commission, "discouraging Americans from flying and contributing to a decline in productivity among those who choose to fly."

Looking at traveler surveys, this has enormous consequences. A 2010 survey conducted by Consensus Research for U.S. Travel found that "American travelers would take an additional two to three flights per year if the hassles in security screening system were eliminated. These additional flights would add nearly $85 billion in consumer spending and 900,000 jobs to the American economy."

In pointing out these problems, we are not implying that the blame for the status quo falls wholly, or even primarily, on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which does the best it can in the face of what the U.S. Travel commission called "the wild swings in media coverage and public policy that, over the past 10 years, have characterized the debate over aviation security" and the "ever-changing policies set by Congress and the administration."

One thing that can help is the development of a "trusted traveler" program, a concept long supported by ASTA. Under this system, travelers who provide biometric and biographical information, among other things, would have access to a less intrusive screening process. This would allow the focus to be on unknown or higher-risk travelers instead of the one-size-fits-all system we have today.

Trusted traveler efforts have gone through a lot of iterations since 2001, but they appear to be gaining steam. The White House's National Travel and Tourism Strategy, released in May, called for the expansion of the two main programs, the TSA's "PreCheck" program at domestic airports and Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) "Global Entry" program for U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from abroad.

Being enrolled in these programs means shorter lines, no taking off shoes/belt, pulling out your "3-1-1" bag and separate laptop bin. And when flying internationally, it means you head straight for the Global Entry kiosk; no waiting in line or filling out I-94 forms when returning home.

In July the TSA announced it has screened more than 2 million travelers through PreCheck, which will be expanded to the nation's busiest 35 airports by year's end. In May, the CBP reported more than 998,000 trusted travelers with Global Entry benefits, which has reduced average processing times for those passengers to less than one minute.

ASTA has been working closely with our members and federal partners to roll out these two programs, hosting webinars, writing white papers and inviting officials to address industry conferences. We even arranged to have CBP on site at our Trade Show in Los Angeles, where those who have applied online could have their Global Entry interview and be enrolled on site, saving them a separate trip to a CBP enrollment center.

In a post-9/11 world, there is no going back to the old days of lax airport security, and there is always going to be a hassle factor to flying. That said, there is a balance to be struck, and programs like PreCheck and Global Entry help to tilt the balance back toward the reasonable.

ASTA stands ready to work with federal agencies and industry partners toward developing a risk-based system that will at once strengthen the system and encourage consumers to travel more. Given the economic and psychological consequences of the status quo, we can do no less.

Eben Peck is ASTA's vice president for government affairs. Contact him at [email protected].

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