by Sarah D. Scalet

Airport Screening: Can We Trust Any Travelers?

Jan 01, 20033 mins

When the new head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Adm. James Loy, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee this past fall, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) greeted him with a wisecrack that suggests why the “trusted traveler” program?which would allow prescreened passengers to speed through security?will become a reality in 2003. “Admiral,” said Breaux, “I don’t think that I possess a single piece of clothing that has not been seen by an airport screener.”

A lot of members of Congress?all frequent fliers?have made similar observations, which means the concept of a trusted traveler program is top-of-mind for them.

The only problem is that the program may not be all that trustworthy.

Proposed by the trade group Air Transport Association (ATA) on behalf of several major airlines, the program would be a post-9/11 version of first class. Frequent fliers would agree to background checks and, if they pass muster, pay for a smart card that would allow them to slide through security checkpoints.

Opponents say that’s elitist and would violate the civil liberties of those less likely to qualify?say, persons of Middle Eastern descent?while introducing new security problems, such as the possibility that a terrorist could get trusted status. Advocates, including major carriers desperate to decrease the hassle factor of flying, say the program would shorten lines for everybody and free up security personnel to concentrate on travelers who pose real threats.

“Everyone is not an equal security risk,” says Michael Wascom, an ATA spokesman, “and the overwhelming majority are no risk at all. Frankly, the time has come for political correctness to be put aside for what’s in the best national security interest for our nation.”

TSA, part of the Department of Transportation, has not yet worked out the details of who could qualify for the program, how the smart ID cards would work, what the program would cost and what security qualifying travelers would pass through before boarding. Loy favors the program (which is temporarily on hold) but not the name. “[It] suggests we don’t trust all the other players,” he told the Commerce Committee. Instead, Loy prefers the phrase “registered traveler.”

“You can call it whatever you want, it’s still the same thing,” says Billie H. Vincent, a former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration turned consultant. “Our society is much too diverse to be able to classify people one way or the other. A number of those 19 hijackers on 9/11 could very well have qualified as a trusted traveler.”

Vincent, like Breaux, has plenty of clothing that’s been seen by security screeners?he just has a different idea of what’s a hassle and what’s a necessary security procedure. Talking on a cell phone as he waits to catch a flight, he says he logs more than 160,000 miles a year, which wins him all sorts of perks. “Give me those perks in upgrades or on the airplane, but don’t give them to me at a screening point, because all you’re doing is decreasing my safety,” he says.