U.S. Won't Ease Security Rules For 'Registered Traveler' Plan

The Transportation Security Administration won't back off from strict security standards for "registered traveler" programs, even though its hard line is causing several airports including Logan to reconsider offering the service.

The TSA fears the program, set to start in June, could be infiltrated by "home-grown" terrorists like last summer's London subway and bus suicide bombers, all Muslim Britons of Pakistani origin who had no criminal records or other issues that background checks would have flagged.

"We are not going to let the registered traveler program, which is a great idea, become a potential tool for terrorists to beat the system period," the TSA's administrator, Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, said in a Globe interview at Logan International Airport yesterday.

The program allows passengers who pass a government background check and pay an annual fee to use dedicated checkpoints to avoid long public securi ty lines.

Hawley cited the London bombings as a key factor in shaping TSA's refusal to relax airport screening rules, because a clean background check doesn't always mean a passenger is not a security threat. Referring to suicide bombers who killed 52 people July 7 in three subway attacks and a bus bombing, Hawley said, "These individuals were home-grown and would not stick out and did not have any bad things that would stick out in a background check."

As a result, Hawley said, "We are not going to significantly reduce security for people who would meet that background check" in the United States.

The TSA considers the top threat to be terrorists who would smuggle plastic explosives or other bombs onto airplanes.

US airports are to begin offering registered traveler programs as soon as June. But the TSA recently said it will not exempt passengers in the programs from random "secondary screening" pat-downs. Nor will it let participating airports allow registered travelers to keep their shoes, jackets, and coats on during screening, or keep laptop computers inside cases unless the airports can prove they use scanners that will detect explosives and traces of them.

If registered travelers have to remove shoes and coats and face pat-downs, many airport officials doubt the program will attract enough people to justify the cost.

Some airports also say that their wait times at TSA checkpoints are short enough that customers won't join a registered traveler program that is likely to cost $80 to $150 annually, depending on the airport.

As executives at several airports mull whether to sign up, those who run airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, and San Francisco have officially declined to sign up. Only Orlando International Airport, in Florida, has a registered traveler program in place. Airports in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and San Jose, Calif., plan to add them.

Spokesman Phil Orlandella said the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, is reviewing the program and has not decided whether to participate.

Hawley said the TSA has no interest in promoting a registered traveler service.

"We are open to it, but we are not advocating for it," he said. With the TSA set on maintaining many current security procedures for registered travelers, Hawley said, "Whatever can be done on top of that by private-sector entities, we're happy to support, but our job is security. We're going to do that job without conditions."

"What we care about is that security is not diminished, the regular traveler is not disadvantaged, and we don't pay," Hawley said.

Hawley said the TSA is confident airline travel is at least as safe as it has ever been, from a terrorism-prevention standpoint. Nevertheless, Hawley and Boston TSA chief George N. Naccara said the agency is working to hire the equivalent of 100 more full-time TSA officers at Logan, to increase the staff to about 850.

Steven Brill, president of Verified Identity Pass Inc., which runs the 10,000-member registered traveler program in Orlando, is eager to sell systems to other US airports. He said he is "very hopeful" his company will have technology by June that addresses the TSA's concerns.

VIP has been working with General Electric Co. to develop gear for detecting explosives that does not require people to remove shoes and jackets, which Brill said could be deployed in registered traveler lanes.

"I emphasize `potentially,' because obviously TSA has to approve the equipment," Brill said. "It's great they've opened the door for that."

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