Background Checks, Shorter Lines?

June 8th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Support grows for verification programs to cut airport security waits.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Late last year, we discussed the National Opt-Out day for travelers frustrated with the TSA’s new full-body scanner. The Opt-Out organizers encouraged travelers to jam TSA security on the day before Thanksgiving – historically one of the busiest travel days of the year – by refusing to be scanned or submit to a more thorough pat-down than previously used.

And even though the day turned out to be a bust, the issue hasn’t gone away. USA Today just ran a story about the resurrection of traveler verification programs as a substitute for invasive body checks.

As most travelers are aware, the trusted traveler background check is not a new idea. The first pass at a major background checking service was made by CourtTV co-founder Steve Brill with the introduction of Verified Identity Pass’ CLEAR special security lanes in airports, which let verified travelers go through shorter security lines than nonmembers. Before it went bust in 2009, the service had performed background security checks, biometric fingerprints and retina scanning technology to authenticate its 250,000 members. In the end, TSA chose not to be involved with applicants’ background checks and withdrew its endorsement – so CLEAR and a number of similar start-ups failed.

But according to the USA Today story, business and leisure travel groups – and even government officials – are eyeing verification programs once more. The TSA recently acknowledged the need to help speed along frequent fliers who are willing to provide personal information in order to prove they’re not a security risk. TSA chief John Pistole told a group of lawyers in March that the TSA is exploring “checkpoints of the future” models to focus its resources on higher-risk passengers.  And the agency is already testing a screening program for flight crew and staff.

But while it once seemed that government agencies couldn’t wait to pass the responsibility to some other entity, the International Air Transport Association (a global airline trade group) and the US Travel Association (representing travel companies, suppliers and destinations) have entered the fray, lobbying for tripartite check lines at airports.  According to USA Today, the organizations propose that travelers who opt in and pass a stringent check on their risk profile would be given access to an expedited lane (a la the late CLEAR program); travelers whose names show up as a potential risk to air security would be steered toward a lane with more thorough screening, like full-body scanners and aggressive pat-downs; and travelers who are neither trusted nor deemed risky would go through a lane similar to what you and I go through now (only hopefully shorter).

More than 70% of respondents from a 2010 survey by the Global Business Travel Association said they'd be willing to pay for a voluntary opt-in screening program if it gives them faster passage through screening.

But who’s ultimately responsible for airport security? What kind of room is there for private companies to enter the security business? Will the TSA cooperate with private companies now that they acknowledge lines are too long? Let us know your thoughts.