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TSA, pilots weigh biometric system for airport screening

Pilots who fly passenger and cargo planes want the U.S. government to implement a program under which their identities will be confirmed using biometrics so they can pass quickly through airport security checkpoints and avoid -- for the most part -- controversial screening procedures involving body scanners or pat-downs.

Pilots unions have entered into what are described as "high-level" and "sensitive" talks with Obama administration officials in recent days in response to a public backlash against the use of the whole-body imaging machines and physical pat-downs that are seen as being too invasive.

Beyond pilots, passenger-rights groups and privacy advocates are also criticizing the screening procedures, with some calling for a boycott of whole-body imaging machines next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that he is aware of the protests but urged passengers to view security as a partnership. "Those security officers are there to work with you to make sure that everybody on that flight has been properly screened," he said.

The focus of the discussions with the unions centers on rolling out a "crew-pass" system under which pilots would use a card containing biometric information, such as a digital photograph, to move quickly through security checkpoints, Bill McReynolds of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, told National Journal on Tuesday.

TSA is now testing a crew-pass program at three airports in the country, said McReynolds, a FedEx cargo pilot who is chairman of ALPA's President's Committee for Cargo.

"They are going to expedite implementing the program on a larger scale now," he said.

TSA would neither confirm nor deny that talks have focused on expanding the crew-pass program.

"TSA Administrator John Pistole is committed to ensuring TSA operates as a risk-based, intelligence-driven agency, and [he has] launched several reviews of TSA policies soon after his confirmation in June to ensure they meet those standards," the agency said in a statement.

"As a result, TSA has looked at several possible alternative security protocols for airline pilots that would expedite screening for this low-risk population while maintaining high security standards," the agency added. "TSA initiated a pilot program for one of these alternatives, and the review is ongoing. TSA looks forward to continuing its collaboration with pilots on these important issues."

Sam Mayer, communications director of the Allied Pilots Association, said in an interview that TSA is "looking for an out" amid growing anger over screening procedures.

APA, the largest independent pilots association with a membership of 11,500 American Airlines pilots, advised its members not to go through the whole-body imaging machines and to opt instead for an enhanced pat-down procedure by a TSA official of the same sex as the pilot. As the pat-down procedure can take about 10 to 15 minutes per person, Mayer said he has been receiving reports that some airports are choosing to direct pilots to the old machines that are not full body scans.

The group has been asking TSA for almost 10 years to implement a biometric identification system for crew members, Mayer said. He added that the current system is both time consuming and demeaning to pilots.

"It's pointless ... we're sitting at the controls of the airplane. We sit with guns. We have a large crash ax," Mayer said. "We are not the threat to an airplane being used as a weapon of mass destruction."

But a major outstanding issue is how to pay for such a biometric system. The pilot unions believe that the government must foot the bill.

Mayer described the costs involved in a special screening system in two parts: the cost of installing the physical hardware at all the airports, and the cost of maintaining a "real-time database" of who is legal to pass through a special system.

Mike Cleary, president of the US Airline Pilots Association, said he was in communication "repeatedly" with TSA on Tuesday.

The conversations are "certainly at a sensitive phase," Cleary said. "We're trying very hard to find common ground." He agreed there should be a biometric screening system, or a coordinated identification system based upon using different forms of picture identification.

A biometric system would verify that pilots are who they say they are, according to USAPA Communications Director James Ray.

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