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TSA Limited by Airlines in Trying to Speed U.S. Airport Checks

TSA Limited by Airlines in Trying to Speed U.S. Airport Checks
The Transportation Security Authority will be "OK in the short term," with full staffing at airports, TSA Administrator John Pistole said. Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, vowing to make airport security checks faster and less intrusive for lowest-risk passengers, made airlines an early partner in its trusted-traveler program known as PreCheck.

It’s an arrangement with a catch, one that’s limited how many people can use the program and how often those selected can breeze through checks with shoes and belts on. The 1 million PreCheck screenings a month the TSA projects for next year probably will be about 2 percent of U.S. passengers, far from the 50 percent to 75 percent that agency officials say they want to move into the speedier lines.

TSA has relied on airlines to nominate PreCheck candidates from among their best customers. Because not all airlines participate, and some consider frequent-flier information secret, a passenger qualifying under one airline can’t use PreCheck if flying another carrier. Agency officials said they don’t have the technical capability now to create a clearinghouse that might resolve the roadblock.

“The system should be based on risk and efficiency, not customer loyalty,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president at the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based trade group whose members include hotels, cruise lines and tour operators. “TSA has made their bed with the airlines.”

PreCheck is a cornerstone of the agency’s efforts to move away from what TSA Administrator John Pistole calls a “one-size-fits-all” security system. It’s cleared more than 3 million passengers so far and is available at 27 U.S. airports.

System Limits

“The goal is to expand PreCheck as broadly as possible,” Pistole said at a news conference Sept. 25. “The vast majority of travelers simply want to get from point A to point B safely. They’re not terrorists.”

PreCheck’s structure makes it difficult to clear passengers on more than one airline, said Douglas Hofsass, the TSA’s assistant administrator for the office of risk-based security.

TSA sets the classified criteria, and transmits them to participating airlines. Airlines match the qualifications, which include the number of miles flown, number of segments flown and number of destinations, against their frequent-flier lists. Airlines ask customers who qualify if they want to opt into PreCheck. Those who do are forwarded to TSA for final approval.

The airline industry worked closely with the security administration on PreCheck to reduce wait times and allow TSA to “focus its resources where they are most needed,” said Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the Washington-based trade group that represents companies like Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc..

Technology Hurdles

In addition to those two carriers, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, US Airways Group Inc. and Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines participate in the program.

Airlines want the government to expand PreCheck and support efforts to help customers qualify across carriers, she said.

Some airlines are reluctant to share customer information with competitors, Hofsass said. They’ve indicated they’re willing to work with TSA, he said. Technology may be the bigger hurdle.

“Technically, we don’t have the ability right now, based on the way the eligibility requirements are transmitted to the individual carrier, the way those individuals opt in and the way those records come into us, to validate those individuals,” Hofsass said.

“We don’t have the ability to cascade that to other carriers when those individuals make reservations,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have an idea as to how we might solve that.”

Partner Needed

The agency needs to turn to a private-industry partner who can market the program and create a database of PreCheck fliers, said U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, who oversees the agency through his Transportation Security subcommittee.

“This is another example of TSA’s failure to effectively communicate early on with the private sector,” the Alabama Republican said. “It’s TSA’s responsibility to work with the airlines to find an appropriate solution. If TSA had done it right the first time we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

TSA officials believe they can move more people into PreCheck by getting more airlines to opt in, and by finding more groups that can qualify, Hofsass said.

“Frankly the number of folks that actually travel on other carriers, that is not the factor that is holding back the growth of the program,” Hofsass said. “That’s not our roadblock to success.”

The agency is seeking partners that can help vet passengers who aren’t frequent fliers but may be willing to share personal information in exchange for faster screening, Hofsass said. Announcements are expected in 2013, he said.

Clear Card

Alclear LLC, based in New York, is one company vying to get into the field. It sells a biometric identification card called Clear that speeds screening at four U.S. airports. Clear holders get to go to the front of screening lines while still being subject to shoes-off, belt-off screening procedures.

Alclear bought Clear out of bankruptcy in 2010 from Verified Identity Pass, a company founded by Steven Brill. The original business peaked at more than 200,000 members at 17 airports, before being suspended by the TSA in 2008 after a laptop containing personal information of 33,000 customers went missing.

Clear is “well-positioned to help scale the secure eligible population for TSA’s risk-based security initiatives at no cost to the government or taxpayers,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive officer, said in an e-mail. Clear has more than 200,000 members in its database, according to Nora O’Malley, a spokeswoman.

‘Extraordinarily Complex’

TSA encourages travelers who don’t qualify for PreCheck as frequent fliers to enroll in Global Entry, a program created by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to automate some border-crossing processes.

Applications have surged from about 16,000 a month a year ago to nearly 38,000 in September, said Stephanie Malin, a CBP spokeswoman. Applicants pay a $100 application fee for a pass that lasts five years and lets them use PreCheck.

To get their passes, though, applicants must go through a personal interview that isn’t offered everywhere. A resident of New Orleans would have to travel 700 miles round-trip to Houston for the interview, after filling out an online questionnaire that includes a list of residences, work history and countries visited for several years, said Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association.

“Global Entry is extraordinarily complex,” Freeman said.

It hasn’t worked so far for Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, which advocates for passengers before TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Leocha said he hasn’t been allowed to use PreCheck in any of the 10 trips he’s taken since it was created, even though he’s a longtime Global Entry member. Other Global Entry members report similar experiences, he said. He’s looked on with envy as other passengers go through the no-hassle line, he said.

‘Ways Off’

“When it works, it’s like magic,” Leocha said. “But it’s a work in progress. We’re a long ways off from being able to deal with the masses.”

A computer glitch that rejected Global Entry members for minor misspellings was discovered and corrected this summer, TSA’s Hofsass said. Global Entry members have to make sure they enter their identification numbers on each flight, he said.

CBP expects some travelers will be able to build in about 20 minutes for the Global Entry interviews while they’re on trips for other purposes, Malin said.

“We’re trying to cover as many bases as possible,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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