First came the knives. Now come the laptops and shoes.
As it eases restrictions on blade-carrying passengers to speed up the airplane boarding process, the Department of Homeland Security also wants to allow more low-risk travelers to breeze through airport checkpoints.
It’s all an attempt to make travel easier for air passengers as the sequester threatens to make lines longer. The push would include a major expansion of two trusted-traveler programs that let prescreened passengers bypass much of the security routine when preparing to board a plane or enter the U.S.
Supporters like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano say the changes would enhance, not weaken, post-Sept. 11 security measures by allowing the government to focus on the real bad guys.
Not all security experts agree, however. And expedited-screening efforts at the Transportation Security Administration have previously drawn concerns about privacy, with the American Civil Liberties Union warning that the program’s expansion could lead to the abuse of passenger data and discriminatory profiling.
Still, Homeland Security has begun the process of growing two programs: TSA’s PreCheck for domestic travelers and Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry initiative for those coming from abroad.
“Our hope is that by the end of this year, one in four travelers will be in some sort of expedited traveler program,” Napolitano told reporters at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast, adding that the move could “take some pressure off the wait lines at the airports.”
The effects can be dramatic – even during a congressional recess when crowds are relatively light at Reagan National Airport.
During a 30-minute period Tuesday afternoon, 10 people breezed through the express lane at one concourse, while the rest of the passengers took 10 to 15 minutes to get through the security line. And while traveling through one major airport during rush hour, TSA Administrator John Pistole – a PreCheck passenger – took seven minutes to pass through security; his aide, standing in the general public line, took 23 minutes.
Beyond trying to shorten lines, the two programs are part of a broader strategy to revamp the way the decade-old agency thinks about security and post-Sept. 11 terrorism threats. It means shifting DHS’s security efforts from a “cookie-cutter approach” to a “risk-based” one, Napolitano said.
That was the thinking behind Pistole’s decision last month to let passengers bring items like small knives, golf clubs, souvenir baseball bats and hockey sticks onto planes. The rule, which takes effect April 25, triggered a fierce backlash from Democrats and flight attendants, but it’s designed to help TSA screeners spend more time searching for explosives that could bring down a plane.
In the same vein, TSA has begun allowing seniors older than 75 and children younger than 12, as well as members of the U.S. military, to use the express lanes. Last week, the agency accepted members of the Wounded Warriors program into PreCheck, which launched in October 2011.
TSA’s logic doesn’t sit well with security hard-liners, who say that, if anything, the rules should be strengthened. Aviation security consultant Isaac Yeffet, the former head of security for Israel-based El Al Airlines, has long urged TSA to adopt the process he developed there: requiring all passengers to be interviewed by a well-trained agent for two to three minutes before they can get on a plane.
Anything short of that – including relaxing policies concerning banned items – is practically inviting another terrorist attack, he said.
“This will not save lives. I’m afraid that if the terrorists decide to attack us, we will pay the price,” said Yeffet, who is based in New York. “We have to think about the tragedy that we faced already in this world. And I would never allow us to have security with the low level that we have here.”
But Doug Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines, praised DHS’s push to boost expedited screenings as “a wise move” that will help agents do their job more effectively.
The reality, he said, is that no security system is perfect.
“Any system can fail and at some point they’re going to sabotage an airplane,” said Laird, now a Reno, Nev.-based aviation security consultant who works with airlines, airports and governments. “But in the grand scheme of things, let’s look at the big picture and not get hung up on the minutiae.”
The accelerated screening programs haven’t been free of controversy on Capitol Hill. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) recently blasted DHS’s tentative decision to extend the Global Entry program to Saudi Arabia – which McCaul noted was home to 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
But the chairman hailed the agency’s overall move toward risk-based screening measures as a “positive step for our national security” that will result in “shorter wait times at airports.”
“By expediting trusted travelers, TSA can focus on the real threats to our aviation security,” McCaul said in a statement.
TSA’s PreCheck program, available at 40 U.S. airports, sees 7 million passengers pass through its lanes each year. That number is expected to grow as TSA expands the program to other cities and airlines in the coming years.
PreCheck participants don’t have to wait in line, don’t have to remove their shoes, belts or light jackets and can leave their laptops and toiletries in their bags as they’re screened before boarding their flights.
Nearly 1.5 million travelers are enrolled in the Global Entry program, which has recorded 4.3 million passenger trips at 44 U.S. and Canadian kiosks since the program started in 2008. In Global Entry, travelers entering the U.S. can present their passports, scan their fingerprints and make a customs declaration at an automated kiosk instead of waiting in line for a Customs officer.
One difference between the two programs: To be invited to PreCheck, you must be enrolled in one of the airline’s frequent-flyer programs – that way, airlines pick up the cost of background checks. But some passengers lament that PreCheck status is nontransferable among airlines, meaning if you are PreCheck-approved for United, that doesn’t mean you are approved for Delta.
For Global Entry, international travelers must pay a $100 fee, be fingerprinted and undergo an in-person interview with an officer to receive an expedited screening pass good for five years. People admitted to Global Entry also receive PreCheck benefits on domestic flights.
TSA is looking at possibly adopting some aspects of the Customs program, such as shifting PreCheck to a fee-based system and partnering with a private contractor to vet participants.
So far, TSA’s PreCheck program has partnered with US Airways and American Airlines, which will soon merge, and Delta, United, Hawaiian and Alaska. JetBlue has expressed interest in joining PreCheck. So has Southwest, which is in the midst of a merger of its own with AirTran Airways.
“The goal is not just to increase the population but also the number of airports where it exists and the number of airlines,” TSA spokesman David Castelveter said.
TSA recently put out a “request for information” to private firms interested in providing third-party background checks for PreCheck applicants, though officials said it was still too early to know how large and costly that contract would be. Such a move would shift costs from the airlines to PreCheck applicants.
The agency is also testing a security technique called “managed inclusion,” which would give travelers a one-time pass to go through under-used PreCheck lanes once the people are checked by bomb-sniffing dogs and officers looking for strange behavior. TSA has launched a pilot program in Tampa, Indianapolis and Honolulu focusing on behavioral screening.
“By giving these people more expedited screening, we can spend more time looking for the bad guys,” TSA’s Castelveter said.
Still, privacy concerns can emerge when private vendors become involved in vetting travelers. One notable example occurred in the privately run Clear program, whose previous operator filed for bankruptcy after collecting a wealth of information about people who had applied for the quicker screening. Leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee questioned at the time what would happen to the data. (Clear later resumed operating under new ownership.)
More recently, civil liberties groups have expressed skepticism about how the government would collect and share data to decide who gets expedited screening.
“[W]e have been warning that this kind of program points us down the road of engaging in background checks and discriminatory profiling of passengers,” the ACLU’s Jay Stanley wrote in a recent blog post. “The concept raises knotty questions about fairness; we don’t know who is approved for this program and who is rejected, and based on what data, or what criteria for evaluating that data.”
TSA says it safeguards passengers’ privacy.
“TSA takes its responsibility for protecting transportation networks while preserving privacy and civil liberties of the traveling public very seriously,” agency officials said. “All private-sector contractors who support the department’s missions undergo training and vetting before handling sensitive information.”