Group says biometric screening could reduce airport hassle

Passengers who volunteer personal biometric data -- possibly including iris scans or fingerprints -- and answer questions would glide through airport security.

A voluntary biometric screening system to identify "trusted" air travelers will reduce the hassle of air travel and free up Transportation Security Administration employees to look more closely at higher-risk passengers, security and travel experts said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group representing the $704 billion travel industry, announced the findings of an expert panel and outlined the "Trusted Traveler" screening program, in which passengers volunteer personal biometric data--possibly including iris scans or fingerprints--and answer questions about where they work and travel in exchange for being identified as low-risk passengers. They would also undergo a background check compared to criminal and other databases.

These travelers would get to speed through security screening, presenting their biometric data that would "trigger a real-time match of the individual's identity against a database of trusted travelers," the USTA report said. If a passenger shares a name with a high-risk passenger or someone on the terrorist watch list, a personalized program would reduce the chances that person would be targeted for extra screening.

The panel was chaired by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other heavyweight security and policy experts; it also included airline and airport representatives. It was created in February 2010--well before last holiday season's backlash against new TSA screening policies that gave passengers a choice between full-body scanners, which outline individual travelers' naked bodies to ensure they are not concealing weapons, and intensive pat-downs. Passengers were uneasy about the radiation emitted by the scanners and the forced intimacy of the pat-down procedures and lodged complaints with the travel group for the report.

Under the existing system, anyone "who checks in is treated as a potential terrorist," Ridge said at a news conference. Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which prompted the creation of the TSA, changes are necessary, Ridge said.

The panel plans to present the recommendations to Congress, as the change in policy would need lawmakers' approval and the cooperation of the TSA, said former Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, who served as ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

With 2 million passengers flying every day in the United States, Turner said focusing on a smaller number of passengers would save the government money that might fund the new program. "Congress clearly needs to have a good debate on how much of the cost of this should be passed on in a direct fee [to the passengers], how much of it could [be paid for] out of the savings that might occur as a result of having the program," he said.

Ridge said frequent travelers or those who have already been given government security clearances are likely to pay for the plan themselves. Even with just that support, the trusted traveler program would remove a significant burden from TSA and reduce the bottlenecks caused by the screening machines by focusing "on people about whom you know nothing," Ridge added.

Trusted travelers wouldn't have to remove their shoes or belts or take their computers from their cases during screening, Ridge said, adding that he has been pulled more than two dozen times for secondary screening. "Do I think that is a good use of the resources and the technology and the men and women who are at the TSA? Probably not," he said.

Asked if Congress was likely to be receptive to changes in the screening process, Turner said, "If we can highlight the issue... we can get the Congress to engage. I'm a firm believer that [DHS] and the TSA are doing a very good job--they just need more direction, more support in terms of policy that only the Congress can give."

The panel also recommended allowing one checked bag free of charge, as passengers carrying additional carry-on bags have caused delays. That change wouldn't need congressional approval.

TSA chief John Pistole said earlier this month that he aims to improve passenger screening at airports this year, and that the agency is likely to upgrade more full-body scanning machines with software that will create an outline of a person's body, rather than an actual image. The vast majority of the traveling public--about 628 million passengers a year--"present little to no risk of committing an act of terrorism," Pistole told the American Bar Association.

While Pistole said he too wanted to focus more on higher-risk passengers, he was hesitant to allow passengers to travel without being screened at all by airport security.