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'Registered travelers': How would it work?


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

Editors Note: This column was originally published, in slightly different form, by the National Business Travel Association. The association, which represents more than 2,400 corporate travel managers and travel service providers, favors the "registered traveler" concept.

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Should the federal government create a program that would check the background of frequent fliers and issue those who pass some identification to speed their passage through airport security?

Discussion about this "registered traveler" program has been under way for about a year, but many questions remain unanswered. The Transportation Security Administration, the agency contemplating such a program, is assessing eligibility criteria, screening procedures, technology, data management, scope and funding.

Some agency officials favor a pilot project; the original goal for that testing was by the end of March. But that is not a statutory deadline, and the actual development timeline is unclear.

The agency is looking at similar programs in use at some airports in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Israel. It is also looking into U.S.-Canadian programs in use before the 9/11 attacks. Many of these programs, however, do not address the specifics or match the potential scope of a registered traveler program that goes beyond merely expediting traveler processing but rather emphasizes cross-border security.

The prevailing concept for the program is to have passengers voluntarily apply for background examinations; those who pass the as-yet-undecided criteria would receive a card or other unique identifier to use during ticketing and boarding.

While some civil liberties and privacy advocates oppose the program as an invasion of privacy, many travel and technology-industry groups support it. Proponents think such a program could speed up passenger processing while simultaneously allowing security to focus on travelers whose risk factor, if any, has not been determined.

Even among supporters, however, there are opposing opinions on how exactly the program should work. A recent report by the congressional General Accounting Office reveals a variety of views and illustrates numerous unresolved policy and implementation matters.

Among the questions:

Who should be eligible to apply?

While most proponents think the program should be voluntary, opinions differ when it comes to eligibility criteria. Suggestions range from allowing access to the inspection program to all travelers, to limiting it to only U.S. citizens or frequent fliers.

In a recent survey of National Business Travel Association members, about 40 percent of respondents thought U.S. passport holders and foreign travelers with appropriate immigration papers should have access to a registered traveler program, while another 40 percent thought that only U.S. citizens should be eligible. Only 7 percent of those surveyed said all travelers should have access.

What background checks are appropriate for applicants, and what screening should trusted travelers go through?

According to the General Accounting Office report, the type and extent of possible background checks of applicants vary from simply verifying the traveler's identity to undergoing extensive employment, credit history and criminal-record checks. Most proponents agree that the federal government should conduct the checks.

Proponents generally agree that even travelers already accepted to the program should go through some security screening at the airport. Whether this screening would be less intensive than that for travelers not in the program is in dispute. But the GAO says most agree that trusted travelers should go through a separate screening line to decrease their processing time.

In the past, Transportation Security Administration officials have warned that less-stringent screening for some travelers could weaken security. But agency representatives also say they are willing to consider "differentiated security procedures" for registered travelers.

What technology should be used?

Biometrics has become the buzzword. This involves electronic verification of identity through some biological characteristic, such as unique features of the iris, face or fingerprint. A majority of those interviewed for the GAO report said that some sort of biometrics identifier was critical for an effective registered travel program.

Biometric technologies are thought to be highly accurate, but they are more expensive. Opponents of the use of biometrics think that the technology, no matter how advanced, is not foolproof. Some interviewees think that simpler and cheaper solutions, such as a bar code that stores personal data, and a picture would be sufficient.

How should data be gathered and managed?

There is a need to decide how to collect, store and manage the data about program applicants and participants. One option is to store a traveler's information on a chip in a card issued to the traveler; another option is to hold that data in a central database that can be accessed by security personnel. The chip option offers better privacy protection and faster processing at checkpoints, but a central database allows for easier updates and maintenance of information.

How big should the program be?

How many airports, or cross-border checkpoints, and how many travelers should participate in the program? While some suggest that the program should be as expansive as possible, others think it will be more effective if it is limited to major airports and to passengers who fly often.

An expansive program is thought to benefit security because more would be known about a larger number of people. Too many registered travelers, however, might dilute the program's purpose, eating away time-savings for participants and requiring too much money for equipment and management.

-- Marina Velikova is a research analyst for the National Business Travel Association.

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