WASHINGTON – The government wants to offer airline passengers the chance to avoid extra security checks.
The Transportation Security Administration plans to make a "registered traveler" program available nationwide, agency chief Kip Hawley said Thursday in prepared testimony to Congress. The initial rollout is scheduled for June 20.
The program, which was tested at five airports, allows people to avoid random pat-downs if they pay a fee, clear a voluntary background check and provide some form of biometric identification, like a fingerprint. It's designed to let people who travel often avoid delays and to free up screeners to focus on other travelers.
"We believe that a nationwide registered traveler program can provide expedited screening for many travelers and enhance aviation security as well," Hawley told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on economic security.
Hawley said the TSA is considering adding benefits to the program, such as letting registered travelers keep their shoes and their jackets on, or setting up special screening lanes.
The government will conduct the background checks but Hawley said the plan is to use private companies to enroll travelers, issue ID cards that would be shown at airports and promote the program.
In January, the TSA plans to issue guidance on collecting and storing biometric data and to unveil an appeals process for people who are rejected as registered travelers.
The registered traveler concept is not embraced by everyone. Some security experts say it's a way for terrorists to find out if they're on government watch lists. The American Civil Liberties Union said it forces passengers to pay for convenience and give the government access to their personal information.
"Those who don't want to give up this information — or who can't afford the costs — will have to deal with other airport screening lines growing exponentially longer," ACLU legislative counsel Timothy Sparapani said. "This isn't a choice any traveler should be forced to make."
The pilot program began more than a year ago at five airports and ended Sept. 30. The program is being continued, though, at Orlando International Airport by a private company, Verified Identity Pass Inc., which is headed by Court TV founder Steven Brill.
Brill told the subcommittee that 10,000 frequent travelers paid $79.95 each to join the program. Their average wait was 4 seconds, while the average for regular screening lines was 4 minutes, 16 seconds. Perhaps more important, their average maximum wait time was 3 minutes, significantly less than the maximum wait time of 31 minutes, 48 seconds for regular lines.