by Brendan M. Lynch | November 01, 2006
Prescreening delayed

In July 2004, the TSA scrapped CAPPS II -- the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System -- which was designed to check airline passenger names against terrorist watch lists, a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The CAPPS II program, which had been criticized for failing to account for personal privacy and for costs to the airlines, was replaced by a program known as Secure Flight.

But that electronic screening program, too, has run into criticism and delays. Early in 2006, the TSA halted the development of Secure Flight to reassess, or “rebaseline,” the program.

Even with functional terrorist watch-list screening in place, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), for one, has pointed out that known terrorists could board U.S. aircraft using computer-altered boarding passes, since photo IDs are not now matched to boarding passes at the gate itself.

“It’s unbelievable that after over three years of recalibrating aviation and airport security so that we can keep a close eye on suspicious individuals, this enormous hole remains in the system. It has rendered the terrorist watch list nearly useless,” said Schumer in a 2005 statement. “In this post-9/11 era, the terrorists will find our weakest link, and we can’t leave any stone unturned.”

Registered Traveler

A potential ray of hope for beleaguered business travelers and meeting attendees: The long-delayed Registered Traveler program, which provides private airport security lanes for paying, prescreened customers, appears to be moving forward.

On Sept. 14, Clear, the only RT vendor with operational security lanes, announced that the TSA had authorized the first step to expanding the program nationally, allowing the company to accept advance enrollments at British Airways’ Terminal 7 in New York City’s JFK International Airport and in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Jose, Calif. And the program will continue at Orlando International Airport, where Clear has enrolled 27,000 members since the pilot program began there in July 2005.

“We expect to begin in-person enrollments at these new airports by mid-October and to have our lanes operating at the security checkpoints about three weeks after that,” Clear CEO Steven Brill said in a statement. “TSA is 99 percent of the way there in completing the final approvals related to rules and processes that have long since been decided on.”

Boosters say Registered Traveler will make for shorter lines for the general public, while providing a predictable and short wait time for RT enrollees. “If Registered Traveler can be affordable and gain critical mass, it can have the same impact as E-ZPass in the Northeast,” says the BTC’s Mitchell. “It increases throughput and solves a huge problem that’s out there, which is inconsistency.”

However, critics such as Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) have questioned RT’s effectiveness and point to unresolved issues involving interoperability and the technology behind the program’s biometrics (see “A Congressional Watchdog Speaks Out,” above). Others have pointed to the high cost of participation in the program.

Even the major airlines oppose RT. In a June 1, 2006, open letter to airport directors, James C. May, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association, warned, “the program will unnecessarily drain limited TSA resources and detract from the agency’s ability to craft more comprehensive programs benefiting all travelers.”

Luggage forwarding

Aside from Registered Traveler, some regular business flyers find relief by using door-to-door luggage-forwarding services. For a fee, such companies will pick up and deliver suitcases, golf clubs, skis or other baggage, allowing for travel without the need to check bags.

“We saw an initial bump after the change in restrictions,” says Zeke Adkins, co-founder of Boston-based Luggage Forward, a delivery service. “We’ve seen a steady increase since then, convincing us that folks want an alternative to standing in long check-in lines and waiting for bags at the carousel.”

While most luggage-forwarding services contract out the actual shipping to companies such as UPS and FedEx, they relieve the traveler of the hassle of, for instance, packing their suitcase inside a corrugated cardboard box, a prerequisite of conventional shipping services.