Critics say Registered Traveler is no beacon for airport security

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The Transportation Security Administration’s Registered Traveler program, originally designed to provide a high level of assurance that participants are not terrorists, has been relegated to a “head of the line” perk for affluent travelers willing to pay for the privilege.

In July, the TSA ended its 20-airport pilot project, clearing the way for Registered Traveler, or RT, operations to expand to other airports. The TSA said the private sector, working with airports and passengers, was the best place to determine how the RT business should be structured and that only limited government involvement would be needed.

TSA Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley told a congressional committee in 2005 that the goal of the RT program was “to conduct more extensive threat screening in advance of travel on individuals who choose to participate in the program, and to provide those who are accepted into the program with expedited screening at the airport.”

Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting company based in Colorado, said the concept was flawed from the start.

“It was a very stupid idea in the first place,” Boyd said. “A background check means nothing. Remember that most of the 9/11 hijackers had no record and would have passed a background check.”

The TSA apparently came to a similar conclusion and is no longer involved with the program, other than to ensure that airports include RT screening in their security plans.

“We no longer do the security threat assessments or anything else regulated with it,” TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said recently.

Even so, said aviation consultant Robert Mann, security processes are inherently governmental and should provide every traveler the improved level of service that the private RT firms claim to offer for a hefty fee.

“Otherwise,” Mann said, “we will be facing a haves-and-have-nots version of service quality, in which limited resources -- space for airport queues, for example -- will be taken from the have-nots to satisfy the ‘Hey, I paid for better service!’ demands of the haves.”  

So what prompted the TSA to back away from the program? 

According to Mann, who is based in Port Washington, N.Y., it came down to capital and operating costs, along with the complexity of acquiring and enrolling applicants. Once successful candidates are enrolled, they must be contacted and scheduled to appear to have their fingerprints and eye scans acquired for the biometric database.

The RT program’s biggest expenses are for staffing, equipping and operating lanes at airports. Depending on how many lanes are required, the average start-up cost per airport is $1 million to $2 million, said Steven Brill, founder of New York-based Verified Identity Pass Inc., which operates Clear, the 900-pound gorilla in the fledgling industry.

Greater security: A myth?

As far as enhancing airport security in general, it hasn’t happened, Boyd said. “There’s the claim that there have been no hijackings or terror events in aviation since 9/11,” he said. “The reason is the same as why there were none before 9/11: Nobody wanted to try.”

As for Registered Traveler specifically, Boyd called it “just one more example of how totally out of touch the TSA leadership is with real security. They are not security professionals. This is one reason that GAO report after GAO report has found that airport passenger screening is not materially better than it was before 9/11.”

Scanner technology that would simplify shoe and laptop screening for RT passengers is still being developed.
Clear currently holds contracts at 18 of the 21 operating airports. Its 225,000 members have used the special lanes more than 1.8 million times.

Los Angeles International is expected to become the 22nd U.S. airport with a fast-pass lane for travelers. Last month, the airport began preparing a request for proposals due to be released to potential bidders by early 2009.

But in the meantime, other sorts of expedited lanes are popping up everywhere. At Baltimore-Washington, officials are still examining the RT program, but airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said that “with other recent programs, the need may not be there.”

Dean was alluding to the TSA’s wider use of separate lanes for experienced travelers and families, as well as airlines’ security lanes for preferred passengers. Southwest Airlines, which carries more than 50% of BWI’s traffic, recently opened a lane for business travelers there.

Some 60% of Clear’s members can use the airlines’ premium lines. “Obviously, they know what we know -- that is, our lanes are the only ones that move faster,” Brill said.

At Denver International Airport, “the lane is taking about 22,000 travelers a month out of the other lanes, making it faster for everyone,” said airport spokesman Chuck Cannon.

Higher membership prices

When the TSA dropped its $29 security fee, Clear did not. As a result, its fee jumped to $128, from $99. In October, the price rose again, to $199 a year. Brill said the price increases had been anticipated from the beginning, and that 85% to 90% of members are renewing, despite the higher cost.

The TSA requires all Registered Traveler program operators to accept each other’s customers at no additional charge until July 2009.

Clear negotiated a reciprocal fee agreement with Vigilant Solutions, which operates fast-pass lanes at airports in Jacksonville, Fla., and Gulfport, Miss., but the company has been rebuffed in efforts to reach a similar agreement with FLO Corp., a company operating at Nevada’s Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Executives at FLO, which stands for Fast Lane Option, were not available for comment. The company’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing indicated that FLO is running out of cash and may not be able to operate after the end of the year.

Verified Identity Pass secured $44 million in venture capital funding in August. The company is talking with Customs and Border Patrol officials about making international travel part of the program.

Brill said he thinks the technology eventually will be used not only at security venues like some sports stadiums, but also for identity-theft protection.

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