Wednesday, July 23, 2008

T.S.A. Dropping Out of Registered Traveler Program

[Left, T.S.A. chief Kip Hawley]

Almost totally removing itself from association with the Registered Traveler program, the Transportation Security Administration will announce Thursday that it will no longer provide the “security threat assessment” that is one of the features of membership in the private-sector program. Kip Hawley, the T.S.A. administrator, said in an interview today that the $28 federal security-assessment fee that was added to the basic price for a year’s membership in the program would no longer apply.

The T.S.A. also will announce Thursday that the so-called “interoperability” arrangement in airports will be greatly expanded to whatever the market decides. Until now, Registered Traveler biometric ID cards issued by competing companies were usable interchangeably at only up to 20 airports. That means that someone with a Registered Traveler card from one company could use it at lanes operated by another company.

What does this mean for the 135,000 people who now carry Registered Traveler cards?

Well, obviously, the $28 federal fee is dropped the next time you renew. But providers are raising their basic prices anyway.

Furthermore, the T.S.A. is saying that the only part of Registered Traveler it is willing to accept as a security measure is the biometric I.D. card -- and only then after issuers add photos and make other modifications to the cards.

Beyond that, the T.S.A. is saying, Registered Traveler is not a security program; it's a concierge service for those willing to pay the annual fee to use a special lane that effectively provides faster and more efficient access to the regular T.S.A. checkpoints.

Also, the T.S.A. is saying, competitors who want to expand their versions of the program are free to do so at any airport. Whoever issues the cards, they must be "interoperable" in competitors' lanes at any airport.

Registered Traveler lanes, the vast majority of them operated by Steven Brill’s Verified Identity Pass Inc. under the brand name Clear, are now in 19 airports.

It isn't clear to me yet what the implications are for Brill's operation, which has most of the lanes. For some time now, Clear has been marketing itself more as a "concierge service" than the expedited-security program it originally was promoted as being.

At first glance, it would seem to me that since Clear operates nearly all of the existing lanes, its competitors -- a few small operations that have largely held back as Clear expanded aggressively -- have just been handed a big advantage.

“Registered Traveler now graduates to fly on its own,” Hawley said. “It’s not going to be propped up by the government saying, we’re going to do a background check and you can get security benefits. It's not going to be restricted by the government saying, you can only have a certain number of airports.”

Mandated by Congress, Registered Traveler was originally envisioned as a security program that would provide expedited passage through T.S.A. checkpoints to travelers who passed a basic government background check and then paid a fee for biometric ID’s encoded with scans of their irises and fingerprints.

The initial idea was that a biometric ID card, scanned at the security checkpoint, positively certified the traveler’s identity, and that the holder of the card – having already had a background check -- was also a “trusted traveler” who didn’t warrant the same degree of security scrutiny as someone without a Registered Traveler card.

Proponents in Congress and in businesses like Brill’s that went into the RT program said that RT members would be able to pass through security far more quickly, and eventually without annoyances such as having to remove shoes, laptops or coats and outer garments.

As it launched at airports, Brill’s company spent heavily to develop a shoe-scanner for its lanes in conjunction with GE Security. But the Clear-GE shoe scanner has been rejected twice by the T.S.A. and is undergoing further testing and modifications.

Meanwhile, the T.S.A. has so far refused to accept Registered Traveler biometric cards, including the Clear card, as proper identification. Members of Clear and several smaller programs use special lanes where employees of the companies scan the cards. But other than the dedicated lane that allows members to approach the front of the regular airport security lanes, Clear and other Registered Traveler members still have to go through the same security screening as everyone else, and produce government-issued ID such as a drivers license, just like everyone else.

Hawley, who has been pushing the T.S.A. to develop its own technology solutions to address annoyances like removing shoes at checkpoints, said that the Registered Traveler biometric card will be accepted as ID at T.S.A. checkpoints once issuers make certain modifications in the cards, such as adding holders’ photos to them. Brill has said his company will issue new cards with photos on them once the T.S.A. spells out the requirements.

Hawley said yesterday, “the government is saying there is value in the I.D” component of Registered Traveler. “Other than that [Registered Traveler] is a marketplace thing, unrelated to security. It’s now being allowed to grow at its own pace and rate and not be restricted by the government, and we’ll see what happens.”

As it became obvious that the T.S.A. was resisting giving special security privileges to Registered Traveler members, Brill’s company and smaller competitors like Flo have been marketing memberships as having unique “concierge” benefits. Clear employees, for example, assist members in getting their possessions up to the checkpoint and in some cases collecting them at the other side. Flo, meanwhile, has been marketing membership benefits such as airport parking and other discounts.

Clear members who frequently use their cards at special lanes at airports like Orlando, where regular security lines can be long and unpredictable, have said the dedicated-lane feature alone is worth the cost of the card, because it at least gets them up to the T.S.A. checkpoint faster.

However, as the T.S.A. continues to improve its own crowd-handling procedures, and as security waits in general lessen at most airports, it’s not certain how big the future market for an RT card without special security benefits might be.

Clear currently charges $128 a year for an annual memberships, including the $28 fee that the T.S.A. plans to drop as early as next week. In a press release Wednesday, Clear said that it plans an unspecified price increase this fall. It offered members a chance to renew for up to three years at the current price, which, Clear said, “will be significantly less than what we will be charging this fall.”

The T.S.A.’s Hawley said that the RT security-threat assessment isn’t worth the $28 cost to the public, and that the T.S.A.’s direct involvement with the Registered Traveler program was not necessary.

The T.S.A. security assessment for Registered Traveler applicants did three things, he said. One, it checked an applicant’s name against the standard federal security watch-lists -- which is routinely done anyway when a passenger buys an airline ticket. Two, it checked an applicant’s name against criminal wanted and warrants lists. Three, it checked immigration status.

“We felt that our core mission of aviation security doesn’t include the wants-warrants or the immigration check,” Hawley said. Since airlines already check every traveler’s name against security watch-lists, there was no point in continuing doing that for Registered Traveler applicants, he said.


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