Debate Revived over Express Screening for Frequent Fliers

The return of long airport security delays after Thursday's exposure of a carry-on-bomb plot in London has reignited debate in the United States over stalled plans to offer "registered traveler" express screening for frequent travelers.

Advocates of the plan -- which would allow special lanes for passengers willing to undergo extensive government background checks and submit to eye and fingerprint scans -- say now more than ever, the time is right for a registered traveler program. Not only would it get frequent flyers through congested airports faster, it would free up Transportation Security Administration screeners to focus more time and attention on potential terrorists sneaking explosives on board.

"The recent news of terrorist efforts to attack commercial airliners underscores the immediate and ongoing need to deploy advanced solutions that will allow the TSA and airport authorities to more thoroughly screen for explosives and other dangerous substances while freeing up resources that can be focused on meeting the most severe threats to our nation's aviation security," said Glenn Argenbright, a spokesman for an industry lobbying group called the Fast Lane Option Alliance.

Argenbright is also chief executive of Saflink Corp., a maker of security technology and software in Kirkland, Wash. TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said despite earlier projections that the programs could start this summer, the agency now "anticipates that some airports will move ahead with the RT [registered traveler] program in the second half of this year, and [the] TSA will be ready to support them with security threat assessments," or background checks of people applying to join the programs.

Davis added that in many airports security line wait times have plunged since Thursday, and delays happened mainly because passengers had already arrived at airports before the ban on liquids and gels was announced. Since then the vast majority of airline passengers have understood and complied with the ban, cutting security line waits.

Charles Chambers, senior vice president for security and economic affairs at Airports Council International, a trade group in Washington, representing airport operators, said his group agrees that registered traveler programs could improve overall airport security and operations.

But others say the newest bomb plot only highlights the danger of offering a potential security loophole that could be exploited by American-born Islamic extremists or other would-be hijackers or terrorists who could infiltrate the programs. A prime example is the July 2005 London subway bombings that involved many homegrown terrorists who had no apparent criminal convictions or other records that a government background check would have flagged.

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who is a senior member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said, "The registered traveler program is hard to justify, either from a security or convenience standpoint. It is clear that Al Qaeda terrorists who aspire to attack the US recruits converts without any of the characteristics that would result in denial of registered traveler privileges."

Currently, Orlando International is the only US airport offering a registered traveler program. It has about 26,000 members. Other airports including those in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and San Jose, have said they want to offer the program this summer, but they have been held up because the TSA has not yet released details on what kind of background checks it will require.

Officials at several airports, including Logan International Airport, have opted not to offer registered traveler programs because security lines normally aren't long, or because they doubt they'd be popular enough to get participants to pay $100 or more a year.

One reason many airport managers doubt the programs would attract enrollment is that the TSA insists registered travelers would still be subject to possible "secondary screening" pat-downs by screeners and would still have to remove shoes and take laptop computers out of their cases, unless airports install complex explosive-detecting technology.

Markey said he thinks TSA is making the right call. "Just as I believe all cargo on passenger planes should be screened for explosives -- even if sent by a so-called ' known shipper ' -- I believe all passengers should be screened, even 'registered travelers,' " Markey said.

Logan spokesman Phil Orlandella said that "nobody is talking about" reconsidering offering a registered traveler program at Logan.

Richard Gordon, principal with the Civitas Group, a homeland security strategy and investment firm in Washington, said that whether people conclude the current security situation makes a case for or against registered traveler programs show s that "you can spin this any way you want. But it's a mistake to say waiting line time is the reason to go with an RT program."

Rather, Gordon said program backers should focus on how registered traveler programs can make airports safer, not speedier.

Copyright: The Boston Globe -- 8/15/06

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