TSA to expand Registered Traveler

The Transportation Security Administration announced Thursday that it is opening the Registered Traveler program to any airport that wants to use it, and is eliminating the $28 fee it has charged to perform background checks.

But TSA also is distancing itself from the public-private program, which uses biometric cards for identity verification to speed members through airport security checkpoints. It is not considered a meaningful part of the agency's security mandate.

'TSA determined that the current security threat assessment largely duplicates the watch list matching that is conducted on all travelers every time they fly,' the agency said in announcing the decision. 'The other parts of the security threat assessment are not core elements in determining threats to aviation security and will no longer be required.'

Registered Traveler programs now are in operation in 19 U.S. airports. TSA will conclude the third and final pilot phase of the program with publication early next week of a notice in the Federal Register.

'RT works best when tailored to the individual needs of each location, as determined by the airports and airlines that sponsor these programs and their local federal security directors,' said TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.

Hawley announced the decision Thursday in his testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Program was authorized in 2001 as a way to allow TSA to focus its attention on passengers perceived as high risk, but it primarily is a customer benefit service for members who pay a fee to private operators, and not a security program. Member benefits include special shorter lines and concierge services, although members have to go through the same checkpoint screening.

In 2006, Hawley told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that Register Traveler was 'market-driven and offered by the private sector.' He set out minimal expectations for the program. 'TSA's principal requirements are that it pays its own way and does not diminish security.'

Last year he told the House Homeland Security Committee that the program was not 'an effective operational tool' against terrorists and that the program was not a high priority for TSA. For this he was roundly chastised by several members of the committee.

He told the House Aviation Subcommittee Thursday that the program was essentially being turned over to the private sector.

'Based on lessons gleaned from nearly four years of Registered Traveler experience and three distinct pilot phases, TSA has concluded the latest of these pilots, the Registered Traveler Interoperability Pilot,' in which service providers demonstrated the interoperability of biometric cards for use in any participating airport. Opening it up to any airport will 'allow the RT program to respond and adapt more nimbly to market demand,' he said. 'We continue to encourage private sector investment and innovation to improve the passenger experience without sacrificing security.'

One vendor that has been approved as a Registered Traveler service provider said that the future of the program as it now exists has been put into doubt by TSA's decision. But Jeff Minushkin, chairman of Priva Technologies Inc., applauded the TSA decision to back away from Registered Traveler, saying it would let the agency focus its resources where on more pressing concerns.

'There was not much security value that the RT program had to deliver, so they thought it best that they not deliver any services to the program,' Minushkin said. 'There are real security matters that we need to be working on. You want those resources going in the right places.'

He said Priva had been approved as an RT service provider but was not interested in participating in the program as a concierge service. The company's biometric ID tokens and readers are being deployed in several undisclosed airports to validate employee credentials.

Hawley told the Aviation Subcommittee that TSA is focusing its resources on improving training for TSA workers and screening technology in its checkpoints. He said that wait times for 83 percent of passengers nationwide has been reduced to 10 minutes or less.

There currently are about 135,000 RT members at 19 airports now participating in the program, and TSA said current participants should not see much change in the next year. They will be able to use any service provider's card at any RT location for at least 12 months. After that, service providers will negotiate their own agreements for reciprocal use.

Participating airports are JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York, Albany International, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, Denver International, Gulfport-Biloxi International, Indianapolis International, Jacksonville International, Little Rock National, Norman Mineta San Jose International, Oakland International, Orlando International, Reno/Tahoe International, Washington National, Salt Lake City International, San Francisco International, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles International and Westchester County.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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