Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pre-screened Flyers to Move in the Fast Lane

Miami Herald: Flying within the United States just became slightly easier for select American and Delta fliers at four airports, including Miami, who can now skip through security without — gasp — taking off their shoes or belt or removing their laptop from its carrier.

These privileged few even get their very own fast lane. But, don’t bother trying to sign-up: those who are eligible will be notified.

The pilot program, which kicked off Tuesday, is part of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) effort to focus more specifically on fliers who may pose a danger, while scaling down security measures for a small pool of pre-approved passengers.

More than 500 million travelers fly domestically each year, officials said, noting the “vast majority” aren’t a security risk. Now, under TSA’s PreCheck, an estimated 70,000 travelers have signed up to skip some of the flying annoyances in Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Detroit — the largest hubs for American and Delta, respectively. Hundreds of thousands more fliers are eligible, officials said.

“This will strengthen our security while significantly enhancing the travel experience,” said Robin Kane, TSA’s assistant administrator. The agency, the largest federal startup since World War II, was created after 9/11. Often, it has found itself bashed by angry travelers who feel officials go too far, invading their privacy. How to balance security interests while reducing the hassle for risk-free fliers is an ongoing debate.

TSA’s latest effort is a sort of compromise, and if successful, officials say they hope to expand the program across the country and to other airlines. The fliers — mostly business travelers — who are eligible for this program will pass through security about twice as fast as regular passengers. Shoes and laptops stay put, and travelers can keep on a light jacket. Liquids remain restricted to no more than 3.4 ounces for carry-on luggage. And participants will still be subject to random security checks.

Beyond the limited American and Delta frequent fliers invited to join, U.S. citizens who are members of the Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler programs are also eligible. Those passengers already pass more quickly through U.S. immigration after paying a $100 fee and going through the agency’s extensive background check.

Government officials already pre-screen each U.S. passenger, checking their names and birth dates against a terrorist watch list. But frequent flier and expedited immigration programs collect more detailed personal data on its members.

“It doesn’t mean the other people are a bigger threat,” said Mark Hatfield, TSA’s federal security director. “We just have more information on them. The more people we move from the ‘unknown’ category to the ‘known’ category, the better.”

Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for TSA in Miami, said as a frequent flier on American herself, she received an invitation to join the program a month ago. Not only faster, it is also more convenient, she said, especially being able to keep on your shoes.

Of all the gripes people have, Kane said, “that’s one of the biggest.”

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