Putting Our Trust in TSA's Trusted Traveler?

The United States Transportation Security Administration formally announced its pilot of a “Trusted Traveler” program in June. For frequent travelers, it can't happen soon enough.

Trusted Traveler, Registered Traveler, CLEAR Pass, iQueue… no matter what it may be called or whether it is publicly or privately operated, business travelers are eager to find a program that will ease the pain of long airport security lines, potentially unsafe backscatter radiation scans and borderline invasive pat-downs before boarding a plane and getting to work.

Will that day ever come? That remains to be seen. For now, however, the Transportation Security Administration has renewed the effort.

Travel industry insiders have been reporting on the concept of a Trusted Traveler program since early this year. Such a program would allow expedited security for frequent travelers who have submitted information for—and passed—government-conducted background checks. TSA administrator John Pistole late last month informed a congressional committee that a pilot program would likely roll out this fall.

“We hope to be piloting some initiatives starting this fall in select airports [with] U.S. carriers,” Pistole said during a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “We do want to make sure to manage expectations with the traveling public, and it's a complex issue, so I basically want to underpromise and overdeliver that we will be doing some things that some passengers will see as early as this fall.”

The U.S. Travel Association and Global Business Travel Association have long pushed for such a program and responded positively to the announcement (despite its very modest promises), but there remains plenty of evidence that travelers may want to take the news in stride.

More times than the TSA would likely care to say, background checks on potential threats come back completely clean. As a result, this information alone has proven insufficient for determining risks. In 2008, TSA backed off of conducting background checks for its former Registered Traveler program and handed over responsibility to private companies to ensure some kind of credible security measures were in place. That structure lasted just 12 months before the companies were shuttered.

For Pistole, the fix may reside with the airlines themselves. Airlines hold decades of data which could verify which program applicants fly frequently or on a regular basis. Along with a clean background check, this information could be enough to grant business travelers “trusted” status that would allow them a quick jaunt through security sans the baggage search, pat-down and/or the zap of full-body scanners.

While the concept sounds reasonable, the devil is in the details.

Performing feasibility studies at airports of all sizes and volumes, funding new security lane configurations and equipment, training employees and even determining who will run the background checks (will it be outsourced to a private company, for example, or conducted internally by the TSA?). All of these details take time and funding, and the TSA still owes many airports money from the last time they required a security reconfiguration.

That said, the travel industry should continue to support this type of program that will allow the TSA, in Pistole's own words, to dispense with its current “one-size-fits-all” approach to security screening. For now, however, business travelers should be ready to take their laptops out of their bags, remove their shoes and jackets, and remember to expense the $5 bottle of water they purchase at the airport.

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