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TSA Pressed to Expand Faster Screening to More Travelers

Senator Mary Landrieu
Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is being pressed to speed up its expansion of a program that lets some frequent fliers speed through airport security while keeping their shoes, belts and jackets on.

The TSA is extending its PreCheck expedited screening program to 35 airports by year-end from 7 last year. Asked by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, at a hearing today when 20 percent or a third of U.S. passengers will be enrolled, TSA administrator John Pistole declined to be specific, saying the goal was to expand as broadly and quickly as possible while maintaining security.

“Ten years after TSA was created the screening process is viewed by many as overly burdensome,” Landrieu said. “For too long, travelers with low-risk profiles have been screened no differently than those with high-risk profiles in a one-size-fits-all system.”

PreCheck is only open to top-level frequent fliers nominated by their airlines or travelers who pay $100 to enter the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program.

The barriers prevent people from joining, said Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Travel Association. A Global Entry applicant from New Orleans would have to drive six hours to Houston for a background interview, Dow said. The same person would have to spend about $10,000 on airline tickets to earn frequent flier miles needed to qualify, according to an association analysis.

Terrorist Watch Lists

The TSA has declined to disclose its criteria to qualify frequent fliers. The nomination by airlines is just a starting point, and the agency checks all names against terrorist watch lists, Pistole said.

“We’re not publishing the exact standards that we’re using because we don’t want terrorists to game the system,” Pistole said.

Airports are eager to help enroll more passengers in PreCheck and may use a clearinghouse they operate to conduct background checks for workers to evaluate security risks, said Charles Barclay, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Association of Airport Executives.

Pistole was also asked why a separate expedited screening program for flight crews is being restricted to pilots. Flight attendants undergo the same security checks as pilots, and they are essential parts of the system to foil terrorist attacks, said Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a Washington-based labor union.

The idea was to start with pilots and then move to flight attendants, Pistole said.

U.S. citizens remember the Sept. 11 attacks and realize adjustments in travel are necessary to ensure security, said Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican.

“There’s this yin and yang that goes back and forth,” Coats said. “Everyone wants to be perfectly safe at the same time having everything as convenient as possible.”

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