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Support grows for tiered risk system at airports

Proposals to change airport security checkpoints include the Transportation Security Administration using known information about travelers to apply different screening techniques.
Image: Transportation Safety Administration employees demonstrate new body scanner software at the TSA Systems Integration Facility in Arlington
TSA employees demonstrate new body scanner software that uses a stick figure to represent the passenger being scanned, rather than an actual image of the person, at the TSA Systems Integration Facility at Washington's Reagan National Airport.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

One reason airport security measures frustrate travelers is that screening procedures tend to treat all passengers the same: as potential terrorists.

But in the wake of the furor last fall over pat-downs and body scanners, several industry organizations are working on proposals to overhaul security checkpoints to provide more or less scrutiny based on the risk profile of each traveler.

While the proposals are in the early stages, they represent a growing consensus around a concept that has the support of John S. Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration: divide travelers into three groups — trusted, regular or risky — and apply different screening techniques based on what is known about the passengers.

“Today we have TSA agents looking at TV screens, but they don’t know anything about the person going through the system,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. “The idea is to take data that the government and the airlines are already collecting about passengers and bring it to the checkpoint.”

Trusted travelers
A crucial part of the group’s “checkpoint of the future” proposal, and similar plans under discussion by other industry organizations, is creating a trusted traveler program that would allow passengers to undergo a background check to gain access to an expedited security lane at the airport.

These trusted travelers would probably pay a fee for the vetting, much like the $100 application fee for the Global Entry program operated by United States Customs and Border Protection. After submitting to an interview, a background check and a fingerprint scan to join Global Entry, members can clear customs using a kiosk instead of waiting to speak with an agent.

“Our security apparatus has already acknowledged that we can create trusted traveler programs,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association. “Let’s expand on that.”

The association, a trade group, plans to release its own proposal for ways to improve security checkpoints next month, but many of its core concepts overlap with ideas presented by the International Air Transport Association at an industry conference last year.

Assessing risk
Both groups envision three screening lanes with different security procedures based on varying levels of risk. Trusted travelers would undergo lighter screening, perhaps passing through a metal detector with their shoes on and laptops in their bags, whereas anyone flagged as potentially risky would receive more intensive scrutiny, using technology like the body scanners and interviews with officers trained in behavioral analysis.

Although many of the procedural details are still just proposals, the idea is to determine who may present a risk based on better use of government intelligence and watch lists as well as suspicious behaviors like checking in for a one-way international flight with no luggage.

Travelers in the middle group — neither vetted nor risky — would receive an intermediate level of screening, but ideally the process would be quicker than current procedures because suspicious passengers would be diverted to a separate lane.

Making the screening process more efficient is the major goal of both trade associations, based on concerns that as the economy improves and passenger traffic increases, security lines will slow down, deterring people from traveling. Whether more invasive procedures like pat-downs and body scanners are discouraging air travel is open to debate, but there is a growing consensus that 10 years after the Transportation Security Administration was created, it is time to re-evaluate the agency’s strategy.

Open to ideas
In remarks to the American Bar Association in January, Mr. Pistole expressed a need to formulate a vision for transportation security, mentioning a trusted traveler program as an option under consideration and expressing an openness to other suggestions.

“If people have ideas, he wants to hear them because he’s looking at ways to make changes,” a TSA spokesman, Nicholas Kimball, said.

In response to concerns about the body scanners, the agency last week demonstrated software it was testing at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport that allowed the machines to display a generic outline of a human figure rather than the graphic images some passengers view as a privacy invasion.

The agency has also responded to pilots’ concerns about escalating security measures by expediting the screening process for crew members, based on their trusted status and the background checks they undergo as a condition of their employment. The Air Line Pilots Association is also calling for a more risk-based approach to screening, not just for the crew but also for passengers.

There is growing support for this type of approach, even on a global level. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body that helps establish aviation policies for 190 member countries, has convened a working group to make recommendations about security screening procedures. A trusted traveler program is one idea on the table, said Jim Marriott, head of the organization’s aviation security branch.

Different countries, different needs
While there is support for more standardized practices around the world — rather than a hodgepodge of rules about liquids and laptops — Mr. Marriott cautioned that countries had different security needs, capabilities and resources.

“There are also some hard realities that we have to recognize in the security world about the protection of personal information and sensitivities to individual rights,” he said.

Another issue is the cost of escalating security measures, and how much taxpayers and travelers are willing to spend to feel safe in the air.

“We need strong high-level leadership that levels with the public and says, ‘Look, you cannot expect perfection out of any security system,’ ” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

For years, Mr. Poole has advocated for a more risk-based approach to aviation security, including some type of trusted traveler program. Now there finally seems to be more support to make it happen, he said.

“For the first time since 9/11, I think we have the conditions where it might be politically possible to have a serious debate about it,” he said.

This story, Support Grows for Tiered Risk System at Airports , originally appeared in the New York Times