July 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Transportation Security Administration for the first time will let travelers apply directly for expedited airport screening to avoid lanes requiring shoe removal and laptop checks.
In the agency’s biggest expansion of eligibility for its PreCheck program, U.S. air travelers will be able to apply online or at airports for access to speedier security lanes. PreCheck was previously restricted to frequent fliers nominated by airlines or enrolled through U.S. Customs’ programs for international travelers.
TSA Administrator John Pistole has set a goal of increasing eligibility to 25 percent of U.S. passengers by the end of 2013, up from about 2 percent last year. The goal is for 50 percent by the end of 2014.
“PreCheck is becoming a more accessible program for everyday travelers,” Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based trade group, said in an interview. “That’s what the travel industry has always hoped it would be.”
Advocates for expanding PreCheck have said eligibility is too restricted, limiting the program’s potential to speed up security checks and make screenings less invasive for people who pose no risk. Some travelers call PreCheck’s less onerous queue the airports’ “happy lane,” Pistole said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado today.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s Global Entry program, which offers a backdoor way to get into PreCheck for travelers who aren’t top-level frequent fliers, requires a passport and a personal interview at an international airport. The TSA’s new efforts are targeted at travelers who don’t have passports and don’t fly often, especially overseas.
“This initiative will increase the number of U.S. citizens eligible to receive expedited screening, through TSA PreCheck,” Pistole said in a statement. “PreCheck enables us to focus on the travelers we know the least about, adding efficiency and effectiveness to the screening process.”
Dulles International Airport near Washington and Indianapolis International Airport will be the first two airports to take applications, Pistole said. The effort will expand to more than 300 locations, he said.
Travelers would have to provide certain personal information, including date of birth, address, height, weight, and hair color -- similar to what’s required now under the U.S. Customs programs. They’ll need a government-issued identification card.
An online application will be followed by an onsite interview, at which candidates for PreCheck will be fingerprinted. The tentative plan is to charge $85 for a five-year membership, TSA said.
The TSA will use existing programs that provide background checks on truck drivers and port workers, Pistole said in an interview. The agency’s enrollment sites will include airports and facilities used to vet applications for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, he said.
“In the short term, we’re fine,” Pistole said.
Once approved, fliers will be provided a PreCheck number to give to airlines or enter when making a reservation.
Giving airports more options to market PreCheck to all customers will help drive enrollment, Hansen said. TSA has been hampered by its inability to reach more than a few pockets of travelers, he said.
TSA may eventually expand signup into convention centers, hotels or rental-car offices, Hansen said.
“There’s flexibility here that will allow TSA to put enrollment centers where people are actually going,” Hansen said. “If TSA can partner with the private sector to grow the program, that’s the next big win for the traveling public.”
Forty U.S. airports and six airlines -- Alaska Air Group Inc., American Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc., US Airways Group Inc. and Virgin America Inc. -- already participate in PreCheck, according to TSA’s website.
Pistole has said the agency doesn’t have the technical capability to do PreCheck background vetting in volume. It has been evaluating proposals from companies including Alclear LLC, which manages a private screening program called the Clear card at five U.S. airports, to do that work.
The TSA is evaluating private partnerships, which may be attractive to consumers who don’t want to share personal data directly with government, Pistole said in Aspen today. The companies would vet applicants using the agency’s criteria and TSA would have final approval, Pistole said.
TSA received nine proposals in response to a January solicitation, Pistole said. The agency is now working with an independent group to evaluate three of those, he said.
“We think those three that we’re looking at are viable options,” he said.
Travelers going through a private company wouldn’t have to submit personal details to the government, but the fee might be more than $85 depending on what companies charge, Pistole said.
Alclear teamed up with Visa Inc., U.S. Travel and the American Association of Airport Executives on one of the three proposals being evaluated, Caryn Seidman Becker, Alclear’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
“This complements TSA’s continued efforts to scale risk-based security,” Seidman Becker said. The companies “look forward to moving ahead with our proposed solution into the pilot phase.”
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