WASHINGTON — In a policy reversal aimed at reducing security hassles for millions of frequent fliers, the Bush administration will endorse a program to speed "trusted travelers" through airport checkpoints, an official said Monday.
James M. Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, will make the announcement today at a Senate hearing, said Transportation Department spokesman Lenny Alcivar.
Loy will also disclose that the TSA has confiscated more than 200 guns, 4,600 box cutters and 122,000 knives from passengers since the federal government assumed direct responsibility for airport security on Feb. 17.
In total, 2.3 million "prohibited items"--from scissors to firearms--have been seized.
For months, airlines, airports and passenger groups have been clamoring for special treatment for travelers who volunteer to undergo a federal background check. Such an approach, already employed in Israel, could reduce airport security lines for all travelers. "This is a breakthrough," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., an advocacy group. "Security screeners can spend less time on people who are not a threat and more time on people they don't know."
The previous head of the TSA, John Magaw, had been reluctant to proceed with a trusted traveler program, fearing that it could be co-opted by terrorist "sleeper cells" whose members are willing to devote years to building an innocuous profile. Loy's decision is another signal that the TSA is trying to improve its relations with airlines and airports, both of which have criticized the agency as indifferent to their concerns.
"One of the big problems we hear from business travelers is that they don't know whether it's going to take them five minutes or an hour to get through security," Stempler said. "This so-called hassle factor is one of the things that's caused a diversion from airline travel to other kinds of transportation." The industry estimates that it is losing $3.8 billion a year as a result.
"Preventing another Sept. 11 means more than just X-raying checked baggage," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., which represents the major airlines. "If a technologically sophisticated trusted traveler system ... can be put in place, then we will have made significant strides toward preventing another Sept. 11."
Many questions remain about the program's implementation and operation. Alcivar said Loy has made no determinations about such details.
Israel's "Express Entry" program has been in place since 1998, and it has cut check-in time at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport to only 15 minutes from two hours for 80,000 enrolled individuals.
Travelers in Israel apply in person to join the program and must undergo a background check and an interview. The annual fee is from $20 to $25.
During the interview, the applicant's hand is scanned by a machine. If approved for the program, passengers receive a card with about 90 hand measurements encoded on a chip. At the airport, they insert their card at a special kiosk and have their hand scanned again to verify their identity.
Loy will also announce that the government expects to meet a Nov. 19 deadline for deploying more than 30,000 new federal employees at passenger checkpoints in 429 airports with regular commercial service.
But the TSA will seek relief from a Dec. 31 deadline for screening all checked baggage with explosive detection technology. Alcivar said Loy will ask that 20 to 40 airports be given more time to comply because of delays in procuring and installing the machines.