WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration won't abandon two projects to gather information about air travelers even though the testing of one will end this week and the other has run into problems, the new head of the Transportation Security Administration said.
TSA chief Kip Hawley said Tuesday that the Secure Flight and registered traveler programs are taking on new importance as the agency adopts a risk-based strategy that requires it to know more about people who come to airports. Under the registered traveler program, people who submit to background checks and provide some form of biometric identification like a fingerprint would not have to go through extra security checks.
"You have to make sure people on the terrorist watch list aren't getting on airplanes," Hawley told a luncheon attended by people in the aviation industry.
The TSA's strategy also calls for airline passengers to be screened more randomly throughout an airport, not just at security checkpoints, he said.
Though he offered few details, Hawley said putting canine teams in unexpected places are a good example of random screening. The agency has already trained more than 400 dog teams, he said.
TSA has struggled with the problem of staffing airports with the right number of screeners to check passengers and baggage ever since its inception shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Supporters of registering travelers say the program would speed security checks for frequent travelers who have already been vetted, letting TSA screeners focus their time and attention on higher risk passengers. They point out that 8 million people account for half of the more than 600 million trips made each year within the United States.
The registered traveler program will lapse on Friday after being tested at five airports since July 2004.
Hawley said the testing ended because there wasn't any reason to pay contractors to run the test program any longer.
"It was simply an issue of 'Why am I paying the money?"' Hawley said. "We learned what we needed to learn."
Registered traveler was originally scheduled to last 90 days. It was so popular that the TSA extended it indefinitely. About 10,000 frequent fliers are enrolled at airports in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington.
The program will continue at Orlando airport, where a privately run version began in June.
One of the biggest complaints has been that registered traveler isn't useful because travelers are limited to one airline at the airport where they registered.
The Orlando program is run by media entrepreneur Steven Brill, who wants to install a system of private security passes at airports across the nation. About 9,000 travelers paid $80 a year and agreed to submit to fingerprint and iris scans and to background checks. In exchange, they got a card that guarantees an exclusive security line and the promise of no random secondary pat-down.
Hawley said the TSA hasn't decided whether registered traveler will be run by the government or by private companies.
"We're going to say more about the business model when we know more," Hawley said.
He also defended Secure Flight, which was harshly criticized by an oversight panel in a report released Friday.
Secure Flight would be a government-run computer systems that matches airline passenger names against terrorist watch lists. The concept that sounds simple but has proven difficult to implement.
The project has been hampered by poor planning and opposition from privacy advocates and might not even work, the oversight panel said.
Hawley, though, said Secure Flight is essential to keeping terrorists off planes.
"Secure Flight has to go in some fashion," he said.
On the Net:
Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov
Registered Traveler Consortium: http://www.rtconsortium.org/
(c) 2005 Associated Press