October 1, 2020

On the Road: Fast Airport Screening Is in Store for More

That’s terrific news for most frequent travelers, who have been envious of the relatively small number of select fliers who are so far able to use PreCheck, which allows preapproved travelers to use special security lanes when flying on participating airlines at 40 airports, without having to take laptops out of bags or remove shoes, belts, light outerwear and some other articles.

So why is it that I am a little skeptical about the prospects for a timely realization of this initiative?

It’s a work in progress, and a welcome one, too. But let’s just say the agency hasn’t exactly been on a roll lately. Last month, the director, John S. Pistole, was maneuvered by flight attendants’ unions and their supporters in Congress into an embarrassing retreat from a rules relaxation that he had previously insisted would stay in place — one allowing passengers to carry small pocketknives. A month before that, under Congressional orders, the T.S.A. removed from checkpoints the last of about 250 widely criticized Rapiscan body-scanner machines, which it had vigorously defended for years against claims that the X-ray technology invaded personal privacy.

The agency didn’t make Mr. Pistole available for comment on the new PreCheck plan. But on July 19, when he first announced the expansion to an applauding audience of security policy makers, corporate technology representatives and news media at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Mr. Pistole deftly dodged a question about the retreat on pocketknives. Instead, he changed the subject to what he has described as the agency’s main concern, the overriding potential threat posed by terrorists with concealed explosives.

Certainly, there has been little opposition to the idea of expanding PreCheck, which began in October 2011 with enrollment mainly limited to the highest-level elite-status fliers nominated by participating airlines. Later, PreCheck also became available to those enrolled in Global Entry, a popular Customs and Border Protection program that lets travelers returning from abroad re-enter the country without enduring long lines at passport control and Customs. Instead, they use special fast-pass kiosks where their fingerprints are verified. About 700,000 travelers are now enrolled in Global Entry.

Mr. Pistole, who has referred to the new PreCheck initiative as “Global Entry Lite,” has long advocated reducing the focus on the things passengers carry, while emphasizing multiple levels of so-called risk-based security, including trusted or known-traveler programs. He said earlier that roughly 40 million of the 640 million passengers who annually pass through security at the nation’s 450 commercial airports were frequent fliers, mainly business travelers. These fliers are presumably “known and trusted,” and as such are prospects for lighter security measures.

The PreCheck expansion will start this fall with enrollment centers at two airports, Washington-Dulles and Indianapolis. More enrollment centers will be opened as PreCheck is significantly expanded beyond the 40 airports where it is now in place. In the first year, the T.S.A. estimates that about 383,000 people will be processed.

Applicants apply online, entering information for a background check and paying an $85 fee. They then report to enrollment centers for fingerprinting. Within three weeks, an approved passenger will receive a Known Traveler Number that allows PreCheck eligibility to appear on airline boarding passes. Enrollment centers will be opened throughout the fall at airports nationwide, an agency spokesman said.

As I said, enrolling 25 percent of travelers by the end of this year sounds pretty optimistic. Global Entry, for example, is so popular that many new applicants report long waits for appointments at some enrollment centers for fingerprinting and a personal interview. A personal interview isn’t required for PreCheck. Still, new enrollment centers will need to be built, in many cases at airports where security areas are already seriously crowded and limited by space.

Airport managers welcome broadening PreCheck as “the best thing since sliced bread,” said Christopher Bidwell, the vice president for security and facilitation at the Airports Council International-North America. But he added that some managers wondered “what it’s going to look like at smaller airports that need to make space available for new enrollment centers” once the program expanded widely.

The T.S.A. guidelines for airports using PreCheck, incidentally, require that the special lanes use the old-fashioned walk-through metal detectors, which allow passengers to be screened while carrying nonmetallic items like wallets and wearing belts or light jackets. That would seem to thwart the T.S.A.’s expensive years-old plan to eventually replace all walk-through metal detectors with new body-scan machines that can detect anything on the body or in clothing, not just metal. While the Rapiscan X-ray machines are now gone, similar body-scanners that use less controversial millimeter-wave technology remain in place at most checkpoints. Once PreCheck expands, more metal detectors will need to be put back into service, I would think.

As I said, it’s a work in progress.

E-mail: jsharkey@nytimes.com

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/business/fast-airport-screening-is-in-store-for-more.html?partner=rss&emc=rss