Two air security programs — the Registered Traveler Program and Secure Flight — while still on track for eventual launch, face a few hurdles before they fly.
Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, told the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing in February that plans for a nationwide Registered Traveler program are “on track” and that he expects it to be up and running by June of this year “depending on the pace of our market-driven private industry partners.”
The Registered Traveler Program began in July 2004 as a pilot program involving five airports and participating airlines. Passengers willing to submit to a government security screening could receive a card that allowed them to pass through an express security line. The program ended last fall and has since evolved into a private/public partnership that is planned to become national in scale, with the difference being that passengers will need to pay a fee (as well as pass the screening) to get the card. During February's hearing, Hawley told the Senate Commerce Committee that TSA's requirements for the program are that it “pays its own way, and … does not diminish security.”
While organizations such as the National Business Travel Association and the Business Travel Coalition continue to pledge support for Registered Traveler, some other organizations have become disenchanted with the program.
James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, told committee members that Registered Traveler has “turned into a shifting and dispiriting exercise. It compels you to ask, ‘Where's the beef?’”
Calling it an orphan program that TSA has “lateraled off” to the private sector, May testified that his group is “unaware of any evidence that Registered Traveler will produce the tangible and widely available benefits to passengers” that ATA envisioned when the program was launched in 2002.
For example, May said there is no evidence that Registered Traveler will attract a large number of participants, enhance security, cut wait times, or satisfactorily address privacy issues, adding, “We, however, do know that what was originally conceived as a straightforward governmental program to benefit the vast majority of passengers has been transformed into a commercial enterprise for what increasingly looks like the few.”
But Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, in testimony submitted to the committee, said a recent BTC survey of more than 600 business travelers found that 64 percent believe that without a registered traveler program, security line wait times will get worse. “The major benefit of an RT program, from the perspective of the business traveler, is the high degree of certainty regarding an efficient processing through airport security,” Mitchell testified.
Bill Connors, executive director and chief operating officer of NBTA, said his organization would continue to support Registered Traveler as long as it's voluntary, saves time while not slowing down security checks for nonparticipants, is interoperable among participating airports, and protects privacy rights.
Secure Flight Must Secure Trust
During the hearing, TSA also announced it is delaying the launch of Secure Flight, a passenger screening program that involves the airlines submitting passenger information to the TSA. This role of matching names to watch lists is currently performed by the airlines.
“The effort to improve terrorist watch list screening … is a complicated task,” Hawley testified about Secure Watch. “Despite sincere and dedicated efforts by TSA, there has been an undercurrent of concern from outside stakeholders, really from the beginning. Over the past four years, many concerns have been raised and addressed, but Secure Flight continues to be a source of frustration.”
Some of those issues were addressed during a congressional inquiry two years ago that cited 10 areas of concern — such as ensuring the accuracy of data used and resolving privacy issues. An audit by the Government Accountability Office has found that issues surrounding these areas remain unresolved.
“We will move forward with the Secure Flight program as expeditiously as possible,” Hawley testified, “but in view of our need to establish trust with all of our stakeholders on the security and privacy of our systems and data, my priority is to ensure that we do it right … not just that we do it quickly.”
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said his committee would hold another hearing on the Registered Traveler program and Secure Watch in May.