Feds score lower in use of travel IT

The Bush administration and Congress are doing a lackluster job of using technology to improve business travel, according to a recent report from the National Business Travel Association.

NTBA's 'Business Travel Government Affairs Report Card,' released Monday, noted that only marginal progress has been made and significant work remains to improve business travel with new government technology initiatives. Overall, the group gave Congress and the Bush administration a C+ for their efforts.

'It's a mixed bag,' said C. Stewart Verdery Jr. of the Washington-based Monument Policy Group, a federal public policy consulting group and lead government relations consultant for NBTA. 'There are some successes but more clearly could be done in terms of detection equipment, systems integration, identity documents ' all those areas where technology can enhance security and cut travel time and aggravation.'

NBTA's report said little or no progress has been made with deployment of the Federal Aviation Administration's 'NextGen' satellite-based air traffic control system, even though a new system is universally supported by the aviation community. Currently there are no new funding streams for the initiative. The current FAA system uses antiquated technology leading to flight delays and legislative gridlock is blocking the necessary funding changes to invest in a 21st century system, the report said.

Only marginal progress has been made and significant work remains on the domestic Registered Traveler program, designed to create shorter lines and more predictable screening times for frequent business travelers in the United States, said the association. NBTA noted in the report that 'the Transportation Security Administration leadership continues to demonstrate tepid support for [Registered Traveler] and has rejected equipment by vendors to streamline the screening process.'

On the positive side, the group noted that Congress passed legislation to allow Registered Traveler cards for TSA checkpoint purposes and government agencies began exploring the use of kiosks for biometric departure checks for international passengers. The association recommends doubling the enrollment in Registered Traveler programs and expanding the program to additional hub airports (currently 13 airports are in the program), while increasing government support for the program.

Significant progress has been made but more work remains for the government's International Registered Traveler (IRT) program, again designed to speed thoroughly vetted international travelers through immigration processing. Despite public support for the program, Customs and Border Protection failed to launch the program for overseas travelers, the report said.

However, Congress enacted legislation requiring the Homeland Security Department to begin rule-making for the program during 2008 and to deploy it at the top 20 international-arrival airports by 2010. Additionally, CBP completed rollout of the air NEXUS IRT program for Canadian flights into the U.S.

On the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), NBTA gave the government a B+ ' significant progress made but more work remains. While implementation for air travel went relatively smoothly, the huge demand for the program in the United States and Canada drove up passport wait times to unprecedented levels, which have since been successfully addressed by the State Department.

NBTA noted that Congress enacted legislation supported by NBTA to delay WHTI implementation for land and sea travel until no earlier than July 2009 and that DHS successfully negotiated agreements with four states to produce Enhanced Driver's Licenses (EDL) suitable for WHTI purposes.

The group recommends that DHS deploy passport cards and EDLs in advance of WHTI's 2009 land and sea deadline and that State ensure handling of passport and passcard applications within reasonable time frames.

NBTA gave the government a B+ for its Visa Processing and the Visa Waiver Program, expressing concern with the new Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) programs for VWP travelers, funded by Congress for implementation this year.

While wait times for visa interviews dropped in many locations and Congress funded a new program to investigate flexible interview techniques such as videoconferencing, NBTA would like to see the ETA designed in a way that does not impede last-minute business travel from VWP nations. NBTA also recommended more investment in visa processing capabilities.

'In aggregate we see technology as a way to really improve the travel process,' Verdery said.

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