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Airlines push 'trusted traveler' idea

But significant questions over civil liberties, logistics and loopholes for terrorists confuse the issue.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002


TAMPA -- Delta Air Lines knows a wealth of details about Wallace Hawkes, an executive who flies two or three times a week and has collected 11-million frequent flier miles over four decades.

Reservation agents know he likes a first-class aisle seat, away from the bulkhead. Gate agents know he wants to board even before passengers in wheelchairs. Flight attendants hand him a white wine and club soda as he walks into the cabin.

But at airport security checkpoints, Hawkes gets the same treatment as any foreign visitor or first-time flier.

"Doesn't make a bit of difference," says Hawkes of Tampa, a top executive with engineering giant URS Corp. "I'm taking off my cowboy boots with the steel heels. I'm taking my belt off. I've stood in more lines since Sept. 11 than I did for all years before combined."

Airline executives and many security experts say giving frequent fliers like Hawkes the same scrutiny as some unknown traveler is a waste of time and effort.

"Airlines simply have to reduce the hassle factor," said Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines parent AMR Corp. "They've got to focus on people who are a threat or who they don't know anything about."

Why not take "trusted travelers" out of the regular security lines, they ask, so screeners have better odds of finding the bad guys? To find the needle in a haystack, make a smaller haystack.

Big corporations are hawking "smart card" systems that could identify holders through fingerprints and iris scans and could link to various public and law enforcement databases. A traveler could pay around $100, agree to background checks and pick up the card at an airline club.

But the idea has become tangled in a thicket of difficult questions, even within the Bush administration. Two top security officials have come out publicly arguing opposite sides of the issue.

Critics ask: What's to prevent a terrorist with a clean record or fake identity from getting a card and slipping through security?

Some consumer advocates say such a program would create a class of elite travelers and undermine public support for tighter airport security.

Civil libertarians call the idea a first step toward mandatory national identification cards that would give government and private business wider access to information on where we go, what we do and how we spend.

Then there are the logistical questions. Would the government or the airlines manage a system that might involve tens of millions of travelers? What kind of screening would a trusted traveler get to guarantee security but make the program worth joining?

Card holders would still have to get their luggage and bodies scanned, John Magaw, head of the new Transportation Security Administration, said at a congressional hearing in February.

Raising doubts about the trusted traveler idea, Magaw has expressed concern that a terrorist could build a legitimate background undercover, then circumvent security. The best way to speed up airport lines, officials with his agency say, is to streamline the screening procedure for everyone.

But homeland security director Tom Ridge came out Monday in favor of an airline-run system of identifying "low- or no-risk" passengers.

"I have paid, when I was a frequent traveler, an annual fee to an airline to get access to coffee and a stale danish as I waited for a connection," Ridge said, referring to the hospitality clubs run by airlines.

"I think people would submit and pay (for convenience), share that information about themselves. You can double-check it. And you can make the rational, responsible assessment as to the likelihood of these people being terrorists."

Airlines see the system as a way to speed business travelers, who often buy pricey last-minute tickets, through airports.

Long security lines are costing the carriers big money. Many business travelers are driving or making conference calls rather than spending two hours in the airport at each end of their trips.

Among companies that have significantly cut their air travel, most cited the "hassle factor" as the main reason, according to a recent survey by the Business Travel Coalition, a group representing corporate travel customers.

On Thursday, IBM announced a partnership with the operator of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to sell a smart card system based on one used at the airport. Other companies also are selling or developing trusted traveler equipment.

Electronic Data Systems developed a system for Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport that identifies travelers through technology measuring the precise geometry of their hands. About 50,000 passengers a month use the card to speed their security checks.

"It's not a technology question," said Paul Bize, director of business development for the EDS division that sells products to the U.S. government. "It's a policy, civil liberties and legislative question."

There are serious questions on all those fronts. Perhaps the most widespread concern is whether a trusted traveler program could keep out "sleeper" terrorists who might spend years in this country creating a seemingly clean identity.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said government officials granted visas to all 19 terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks, allowing them to plan and train on U.S. soil.

"Somebody can come and stay for years," he said. "That's what the 19 did. They planned and plotted here for long periods of time."

The American Civil Liberties Union says confidential information that travelers volunteer to give the government or airlines couldn't be kept private.

If many of the 80-million Americans in frequent flier programs got the new IDs, the system wouldn't stay voluntary for long, said Barry S. Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's project on liberty and technology.

"It would quickly become mandatory for travel," he said. "They have no business deciding who is a risk and who isn't until they prove capable of X-raying baggage. To issue tens of millions of cards is a daunting problem."

The ACLU dubs the program a "get out of security free" card. But the Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade organization, says trusted travelers would likely get a separate, shorter line.

"It's not a bypass of the system," said Michael Wascom, the group's vice president for communications. "At least we'd know something about these travelers. We need more robust intelligence to tell us who should be in this country and who shouldn't be around an airport or aircraft."

-- Information from Times researcher John Martin and the Washington Post was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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