The Transportation Security Administration plans to dramatically expand its program to get travelers through airport checkpoints faster by inviting them to pay a nominal fee for voluntary background checks.
TSA's Pre-check program offers travelers separate lines at checkpoints, where they leave on shoes and light coats, and keep laptops in their bags. The free program operates at 40 airports and now covers members of frequent-flier programs for Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, US Airways and Virgin America airlines. Airlines invite frequent-fliers to apply with little more than the information provided when buying a ticket.
But TSA Administrator John Pistole announced Friday the agency will expand eligibility for the program to include travelers who pay a one-time fee of $85 for five years, to cover an application with identifying information such as address and birthplace, a background check and fingerprinting.
Enrollment centers are initially scheduled to open in the fall at Washington's Dulles and Indianapolis airports, but the program is expected to expand at numerous locations nationwide.
"This initiative will increase the number of U.S. citizens eligible to receive expedited screening, through TSA Pre-check," Pistole said.
The expansion is part of Pistole's shift from blanketing everyone with the same security to focusing the most scrutiny on the riskiest travelers. By sorting out trusted travelers for less intrusive screening, the agency hopes to narrow its focus on potential terrorists.
"That's our way of dealing with risk-based security and saying let's get away from the one-size fits all and let's focus on the those that we can pre-screen ... so we can expedite your physical screening at the checkpoint because we have a high confidence that you are not a terrorist," Pistole said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
Pistole's goal is to expand the program to cover 25% of travelers by the end of the year. So far, 12 million travelers have used Pre-check since it began in late 2011, but about 1.8 million people fly every day.
Easing checkpoint security for more travelers is also expected to reduce criticism of TSA.
At the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence overseeing the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, argued that airport checkpoints inconvenienced more people than NSA collecting information about phone calls.
"There has been more inconvenience and damage to Americans by the no-fly list and by taking off your shoes off in the airport than this program," Blair said of the NSA phone program.
Under the expansion, Pre-check would resemble Custom and Border Protection's popular Global Entry program for international travelers. Participants in Global Entry pay a one-time fee of $100 over five years, fill out a travel questionnaire and submit to a background check and fingerprinting.
If the application is approved, Global Entry participants whisk through Customs by swiping their passport at a kiosk and then handing a printed receipt to a government officer.
TSA already recognizes Global Entry participants for Pre-check and that will continue. But Pre-check is an option for travelers without passports and is projected to have more enrollment centers than the 39 that Global Entry has. Pre-check application processing is expected to take about two to three weeks.
Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes travel and conducts research, said the expansion is important for regular travelers who aren't frequent fliers or who don't live near a Global Entry enrollment office.
"This is a huge development for Pre-check and it has big implications for ordinary traveler," Hansen said. "It's going to be something that expedites the screening process for everyone."
The U.S. Travel Association surveyed travelers in 2010 and 2011 and found a willingness to pay a fee for faster screening.
"If you can get the travelers who travel two to three times per year, that's the majority of the flying public," Hansen said. "If you can target them, that's going to put a lot more people through the expedited screening lane and it's going to shorten the regular screening line for everybody else."