Begin program for
‘trusted’ air travelers


A Texas senator has proposed a pilot program to allow expedited passage for air travelers with background checks.

FEDERAL transportation officials initially resisted a proposal to allow "trusted" travelers to pass through express lines at the nation's airports, but they have begun to reassess their position. The travel industry attributes $2.5 billion in lost revenue since Sept. 11, 2001, to security inconveniences. Federal officials are coming around to the realization that such a program could provide the industry with a needed shot in the arm without jeopardizing security or violating people's privacy.

The congressional General Accounting Office has completed a report that recommends more study of the issues involved in a "registered traveler program." Under the program, frequent -- mostly business -- travelers would voluntarily submit to background checks to qualify for high-tech identification cards that include unique "biometric" identifiers such as eye, finger or hand characteristics. The system should be tested in a pilot program at a few airports, as proposed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who requested the GAO report.

The background check would extend beyond what passport applicants already undergo -- a name check against a database from a variety of federal sources, including intelligence, immigration and child-support enforcement agencies. Some travel industry members surveyed by the GAO suggested that it could include such information as verification that the traveler has paid income taxes over a certain period or lived at the same address for a certain number of years, cross-checking public and private records.

The first head of the new Transportation Security Administration publicly opposed such a program because of what he regarded as the potential for "sleeper cells" -- comprised of terrorists who build up law-abiding records. However, the agency now acknowledges that a refinement of the TSA's "baseline level of screening" would expose such terroristic threats. For example, a year-old federal law requires that all checked baggage be screened; the law does not allow a reduced level of screening.

The GAO report estimates that a background check could cost as much as $150 per traveler. Airline officials figure frequent fliers would be willing to pay $100 to enroll in the program and $25 to $50 for annual renewal. Representatives of travelers groups envision, over time, "extensive marketing uses for data collected on registered travelers by selling it to such travel-related businesses as hotels and rental car companies and by providing registered travelers with discounts at these businesses."

Some civil-liberties advocates told the GAO of their concern that the program could become too popular, creating "enormous pressure on those who are not part of the program to apply," and leading to national identity cards. Trusted-traveler cards might be required by some businesses for jobs that involve travel.

These and other concerns should be addressed. However, they should not delay a pilot effort patterned after similar programs that already are effectively under way at airports in Israel, Amsterdam and the United Arab Emirates, where credentialed travelers receive expedited processing.


Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner, Assistant Editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, Assistant Editor 529-4762;

Mary Poole, Editorial Page Editor, 529-4748;
John Flanagan, Contributing Editor 294-3533;

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