Lawmakers want trusted airline passenger program revived

But TSA says the programs don't help with security

Lawmakers called upon the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and private sector companies to quickly re-establish a nationwide registered traveler program to help frequent travelers get through airport security checkpoints faster.

The calls came after the abrupt closure earlier this year of Verified identity Pass Inc. (VIP), the largest provider of registered traveler services, and the subsequent shutting of services by two other vendors that offered the same service.

Both lawmakers and vendors said the TSA had not done enough to support the registered traveler program and in fact distanced itself from the effort over the past year. The TSA, meanwhile, insisted that the program did little to improve security. The agency said that just because members of such programs had been pre-screened didn't eliminate the need for them to go through airport security checks like everyone else.

At a hearing on the future of the registered traveler program Wednesday, members of a House subcommittee on Homeland Security urged the TSA and private vendors to work together to quickly restore the service. The hearing came on the same day an investment banking firm, Henry Inc., said it had signed a letter of intent to buy VIP's assets and re-launch the service by the end of the year."

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the subcommittee chairwoman, expressed hope that the TSA would make a "good faith effort" to explore a security benefit, or an additional layer of security vetting, for the registered traveler program. At the same time, private sector companies need to find a model "that can support a security benefit, but which does not rely on one," she said. Even if passengers must still go through a security screening, these companies can still offer the convenience of getting their customers through the process quicker, such as using a separate member-only line at security checkpoints.

The registered traveler program was established under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA). It authorizes the TSA to implement trusted passenger programs to speed up the security screening of passengers who have submitted to comprehensive background and security checks. Since 2005, the TSA has piloted several iterations of the program with private sector companies.

The biggest of them was VIP, which offered a registered traveler service called "Clear" at 21 major airports. The company, which had signed up more than 200,000 subscribers, stopped service in June saying it had run out of money.

The announcement raised immediate concerns about the data that VIP had collected as part of its Clear service, including Social Security and credit card numbers and home addresses. The company had also collected fingerprints, iris scans and digital images of customers' faces. Many who had paid a $199 annual fee were unable to get refunds. Soon after Clear stopped its service, rivals Fast Lane Option Corp. (Flo) and Vigilant Solutions also shut down their services.

During the hearing, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said it is Congress' intent that such "a quick closing of business" does not happen again. "The traveling public deserves better," Thompson said.

Going forward, the TSA needs to take the lead in supporting the program, Thompson and others said. Much of the reason the program is in disarray is because the TSA failed to support the effort, witnesses said. While the registered traveler program at one time was expected to provide add an additional layer of security at airports, today it is little more than a convenience for travelers willing to pay for it, they said.

"To date, while the private sector has invested over $250 million and upheld its side of the partnership, the TSA has not," said Fred Fischer, managing partner at Flo Corp. Despite the mandate from Congress, the TSA has not fully implemented the use of biometrics as a primary form of identification, Fischer said, nor has it used background screening to vet those using the RT lanes as it was supposed to.

Though the TSA at one point collected $28 per passenger to do a so-called Security Threat Assessment (STA) of passengers who had signed up for registered traveler programs, not one applicant was ever vetted using a criminal history records check, he claimed. As a result, the promised security benefits of the registered traveler program have yet to be realized, he said.

John Sammon, an assistant administrator at the TSA, said that based on the pilot programs and the agency's own insight, registered traveler programs do not offer any additional security. He said the TSA stopped doing security threat analysis for registered traveler programs because there was little value to be gained.

"The prospect of a terrorist not identified on a watch list raised questions about the viability of a registered traveler program," he said. According to Sammon, after an evaluation of the pilot programs the TSA concluded that registered traveler programs "do not provide any additional levels of security."

Going forward, the TSA will work with private vendors to identify programs that will support registered travelers programs. However, from a security standpoint, such passengers will still be subject to the same security checks as other ticketed passengers, he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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