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On the Spot: Airport security checks might change

TSA administrator John Pistole says it might move away from the 'one-size-fits-all construct.'

December 30, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Travelers are as diverse as the destinations they're headed to, but on this much many can agree: Getting through airport security is, at best, annoying. I'm tired of taking my shoes off, sick of removing my laptop and my liquids, fed up with feeling like a suspect in some sinister plot of which I am completely unaware. But after a sit-down with the head of the Transportation Security Administration, I have some hope that things will change for the better in 2013, thanks to a risk-based assessment approach to security.

Here's what irritates me most: I'm a leisure traveler. I fly whatever airline is going to get me where I need to go at the most reasonable rate. Therefore, I don't have a big fat wad of frequent-flier miles that gives me any kind of elite status. And that means I'm never going to be invited to join TSA's PreCheck, the "trusted traveler" program that allows you (if you're a heavy-duty flier) to skip merrily through security, your light jacket, shoes and belt on, your laptop in its case.

OK, I admit it. I have PreCheck envy, even though PreCheckers don't always get to use their PreCheck-ness. They still can be chosen at random to go through regular security, and there are only five airlines that are part of the program (Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways) so if you have a trip on two or more carriers and one carrier is part of PreCheck and the next one isn't, it's back off with the belt, the shoes, the jacket and so on.

But, John Pistole, the TSA administrator, reminded me that anyone can try to sign up for the Global Entry program, through Customs and Border Protection, although acceptance isn't guaranteed. (See http://www.globalentry.gov.) You complete an application form, pay $100 and then, if you're accepted, you schedule an in-person interview. If you aren't accepted, you don't get your money back. If you are and the interview goes well, you not only get to play with the big kids in PreCheck, but you also get to whisk through Customs when you return to the U.S.

Global Entry is not in every airport (nor is PreCheck, which was just instituted at Santa Ana's John Wayne, the 35th airport to be accepted into the program this year), but I'd rather have it than not. New Year's resolution: I will finish my Global Online Enrollment Systems, or GOES, application, which has so stymied me on half a dozen occasions that I've never completed it.

The best news, though, for me is that PreCheck and Global Entry (and maybe more) are part of a movement away from treating all travelers like the lowest common denominator.

"We are looking at a whole range of options to significantly expand the known and trusted population simply with a recognition that the vast majority of the people traveling … just want to get from Point A to Point B safely," Pistole said. "They are not terrorists. And also it allows us, I believe, to provide a better security approach because we are not focused the same on everybody, so the one-size-fits-all construct that was necessary after 9/11, I think we can move away from that."

For instance, in Indianapolis and Tampa, Fla., during the Thanksgiving travel crush, the TSA allowed some non-PreCheck passengers to go through the PreCheck lanes after the fliers had been sniffed by bomb-detecting dogs and assessed by a behavior detection officer. This trial program could be expanded in the next year. Glory be.

The TSA may even use a third party to do the vetting for the trusted-traveler programs, whatever form they take. (Pistole hinted there may be more programs.) Pistole called this new era a "win win" all the way around. Beats the "whine whine" from me and a chorus of unhappy travelers who really want to do the right thing without having to constantly pay the psychic price.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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