WASHINGTON — Former President Reagan liked to say "trust, but verify," and now the travel industry says a variation on that folksy proverb could substantially shrink airport security lines--perhaps by 25% or more.
Airlines, airports and business travel groups say passengers who voluntarily agree to a background check should be issued a special credential that can be verified prior to boarding by a computerized fingerprint check or some other high-tech means.
These "trusted travelers" would be entitled to speed through special express security lanes and bypass random searches. Meanwhile, other passengers left in the regular lines could reap significant collateral benefits.
That's because a small pool of very frequent fliers accounts for a lopsidedly large proportion of passengers. The 5% of travelers who take 10 or more trips a year--about 4 million people--represent a minimum of 25% of the passengers boarding flights, according to an estimate by The Times from government and industry data.
"If you can take one out of four people and move them out of those lines, that changes the dynamics for both passenger groups considerably," said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who monitors the quality of airline service. "If this ID can have that as its principal benefit for giving up some personal privacy, then it should fly, and fly real well."
However, before a trusted traveler program can help unsnarl airport lines, the new federal Transportation Security Administration faces many unanswered questions about how to make it work without creating more security loopholes--or infringing on civil liberties.
Would the government or a private entity run the program? How much information would applicants have to disclose? Could the program be compromised by terrorists who burrow into U.S. society? What criteria would determine who gets a card? Could a prospective employer demand to see it? What if a cardholder subsequently commits a violent crime--would that person lose the privilege? What kind of technology would verify a trusted traveler's identity at the airport? What about lost cards? How much would it cost?
The agency, which is also expanding a passenger profiling program already used by the airlines to detect possible security risks, has taken a cautious, noncommittal approach to the trusted traveler concept.
"It's a good idea to explore," transportation security chief John Magaw told the House aviation subcommittee at a recent hearing, but "I don't have any authority to step out there and agree to that." Magaw indicated it could take quite a while to properly design a trusted traveler program, and the agency has many other pressing priorities, such as hiring 30,000 federal security screeners.
Privately, some security officials worry that the wrong people could be issued a trusted traveler card. Their worst-case scenario involves a terrorist "sleeper cell" whose members are willing to devote years to building up an innocuous profile.
The travel industry finds itself in a predicament. It needs the government's support and participation to go forward with the idea. But pushing Magaw and his agency, as they scramble to meet a long list of congressionally mandated deadlines this year, may backfire.
"The government is saying this is a low priority," said Marianne McInerney, executive director of the National Business Travel Assn., which represents major corporate travel departments. "What the travelers are saying is that this is an important part of their getting back on the planes. It absolutely is a source of frustration for the business traveler."
Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have been warning that such a program would constitute an unwelcome government intrusion in what essentially remains a private commercial transaction.
Some of those objections may eventually be overcome because the card would be strictly voluntary. "I would probably be willing to tell the government a lot of things about myself as long as they would be treated confidentially," said Mark Greenfield, a Los Angeles lawyer who flies on business two or three times a month.
"I would be delighted [if] they would have a way of knowing that I am one of the good guys," added Greenfield, who said he has been wanded, patted down, asked to take his shoes off and had his carry-on articles hand-searched many times during security checks since Sept. 11.
Working out security concerns and practical questions about how a program would work may ultimately prove to be a far bigger challenge than the civil liberties issues. Some officials say they can understand how a trusted traveler program would help airlines sell seats, but they are not convinced that it would enhance security.
The Air Transport Assn., which represents most major airlines and has taken the lead in lobbying for the idea, says it is keenly sensitive to such concerns.