Do we need a national “trusted traveler” program for airline passengers?

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Christopher Elliott

Topic “A” this morning is the U.S. tourism industry’s surprising call for a national “trusted traveler” program for airline passengers.

“There is a shared sense of a better, smarter way to make the air travel security system more secure and efficient for travelers,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “We believe a trusted traveler program should be the centerpiece of an enhanced air travel security process.”

Would air travelers be willing to give up their fingerprints, eye-scans and other personal information information in exchange for a shortcut through the security line? And just how much grief would we avoid by becoming part of a “trusted traveler” program? The body scans and pat downs, but not the magnetometers (like flight attendants) or the whole thing (like senior government officials). Here’s a list of current exemptions.

In a prepared statement, US Travel described the proposed program as one comprised of travelers who voluntarily share biometric and biographical information, pass robust background checks to confirm their “low-risk” nature and are verified by TSA at the time of travel. Under the proposal, they would be allowed to pass through an “alternative” security process.

“Such a program would enable the shift of security resources from a large pool of ‘low-risk’ travelers to allow a more sustained focus on a smaller pool of travelers who are not pre-screened to determine their level of risk,” it says.

Adds Dow,

The vast majority of the traveling public poses little threat to our nation’s security, yet the current approach subjects every passenger to the same security procedures. A trusted traveler program would allow us to focus more security where it is most needed, while reducing unnecessary hassles for the majority of low risk travelers. Surely the United States can find a way to implement such a common-sense approach.

But wait. Isn’t there already a “trusted traveler” program?

Well, yes.

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The TSA conducted its own two-year pilot program a few years ago. The most high-profile trusted traveler program, Clear, is currently in two airports — Orlando and Denver. (The previous incarnation of the company shut down in 2009 and the data collected from the old Clear apparently wasn’t destroyed in accordance with federal law, but that’s another story.)

The current verified identity programs are widely viewed as too expensive, and they offer too few benefits. Clear, for example, promises travelers they can “speed” through the security, but as far as I can tell, they just get to use a designated line. They must still get screened.

Is there a better way?

US Travel says a new system should screen passengers for security risks prior to checkpoints, and even before they get to the airport. This risk assessment, it says, would reduce bottlenecks at the airport and allow security resources to be diverted from the vast majority of passengers who are extremely low-risk.

That, in turn, would allow TSA to “refocus” its screening procedures towards a smaller pool of passengers whose backgrounds and travel habits are less known. It would increase public confidence in security procedures and ensure the most effective use of TSA resources, US Travel argues.

A trusted traveler program, it says, would guard Americans’ privacy and civil liberties by eliminating many physical security measures for passengers who opt in to a trusted traveler program.

“This will strengthen public trust that the federal government is working to balance privacy, civil liberties, efficiency and security of air travelers who are verified as being low-risk,” it says.

There are some questions that must be asked before we go any further. US Traveler refers to this program as a “trusted traveler” initiative, but what it really means — for now, at least — is “air” traveler. But why not expand a verified traveler to some kind of national ID that must be scanned at malls, subway stations, bus terminals and government buildings?

It could be a slippery slope.

The other issue is funding. Verified traveler programs are expensive. Who pays? Would legislators really spring for the $179 it costs for a program like Clear?

And never mind the many, many privacy questions that having a verified air traveler program raises.

What do you think? Is it time for a “trusted” air traveler program for the rest of us?

A quick poll of 250 readers says “yes.” (68 percent liked the idea, 32 percent didn’t.)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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