The Transportation Security Administration seems to be warming to the idea that the Registered Traveler program can provide tangible aviation security benefits, not just shorter screening lines.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley announced Thursday that the agency is lifting the cap limiting participation in the program to 20 airports and eliminating a $28 fee for agency-conducted background checks that has been tacked onto the membership price.
"It's a new step for Registered Traveler that recognizes the security benefits that it has in the [identification] area," Hawley told members of a House Transportation panel Thursday.
"TSA has been talking a lot more about identification verification as a security measure," TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said in an interview. "It does matter knowing who's getting on these airplanes."
As recently as early last month, Howe had said in an interview that "because there is no additional security value to this program, it is not a priority for TSA." But she had also hinted at future applications saying, "it does have promise as an ID program."
Related story: Not so good news for Registered Traveler: Verified Identity Pass loses laptop with customers' info, has to suspend program's enrollment
"RT helps TSA manage risk," Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, which offers the Clear Card for program members, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee. "After all, TSA now knows that the frequent travelers going through RT lanes are the only travelers whose identities are assured through biometric verification every time they go through an RT airport."
Not quite. The cards that have already been issued to the 135,000 members don't yet rise to the requirements of the Real ID Act (PL 109-13), which standardizes biometric and other security features for state identification cards.
On Thursday, Howe said the department is now "opening the door for [the Registered Traveler card] to be a private sector equivalent of a Real ID once a photo is on it" and has a tamper-proof cover.
That is good news for Brill, who said in a June interview that when the card becomes Real ID compliant, it could provide security benefits outside of aviation.
"The whole idea of starting a voluntary credentialing industry . . . is so that if the security threat our attention is suddenly on is sports arenas or subways, you could use that [credential] for some sort of access to that site," he said.
It might seem strange that TSA is touting the security potential of Registered Traveler at same time it is removing the program's agency-performed background check requirement. But Howe said the check only duplicated the no-fly and terrorist watch list vetting that all passengers undergo anyway.
The other components of the background check -- immigration status and warrant searches -- are "out of the scope of what we are doing," Howe said.
By sanctioning a trusted traveler program in the aftermath of Sept. 11 (PL 107-71), Congress said TSA could develop a program to expedite security screening for pre-vetted individuals.
But TSA contends that private sector providers have not yet developed enhancements to allow Registered Traveler members to enjoy reduced security scrutiny at airports.
On Thursday, TSA reiterated that "current participants in the program should not see any change in their benefits for the immediate future."
However, "should RT service providers invest in additional security technology that effectively replaces more time-consuming existing measures, TSA will work with providers and airports to assure its prompt implementation," the agency said in a statement.
"The goal is to provide additional enhanced through-put benefits at our lanes," Brill told the panel.
Although it failed two lab tests last year, Brill said in June that a General Electric scanner that can check shoes while being worn is in the final stages of TSA approval.