Departing administrator reviews status of once-reviled airport-screening agency.
If you grew accustomed to being waved into an expedited security line at the airport this year even though you didn’t belong to the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program, you should probably get ready to take your shoes off again at the checkpoints next year.
More than 45 percent of air travelers now move quickly through security by using PreCheck or other so-called risk-based programs. And the TSA says it has enrolled so many travelers in PreCheck, which costs $85 for five years, that it is reducing the numbers of nonmembers being allowed to use those lanes.
“As more and more people have signed up for TSA PreCheck, we’re reducing that number and percentage fairly substantially, particularly over the last several months,” John S. Pistole, the TSA administrator, said, referring to the large numbers of nonmembers who were directed down the PreCheck lanes this year, sometimes to their own bewilderment.
In a wide-ranging interview as he prepared to leave his job on Dec. 31 to become a college president, Pistole said that more than 725,000 people had paid to join PreCheck, a year after the program was opened for general enrollment. Next year, he said, it is likely that enrollment numbers will grow robustly, because the agency plans to form partnerships with private companies to evaluate applications.
Besides PreCheck, fast-pass security is provided through Global Entry, Sentri and Nexis, which provide expedited entry for returning international travelers at airports and borders, as well as similar programs for airline crews, travelers over 75 or under 12, uniformed military members and others. PreCheck lanes are now available at 123 airports. Enrollment can be completed at hundreds of federal offices and at numerous airports.
Some members of Congress have long insisted that the TSA develop more partnerships with private companies. The agency has been working with potential contractors on rules for managing security and protecting personal data, Pistole said.
“I’m hopeful that we will have some more people being enrolled through the third-party private sector, which could expand perhaps next year significantly the numbers. Instead of hundreds of thousands it may literally be in the millions — which we would then need to accommodate by increasing even more the number of TSA PreCheck lanes,” he said. Currently, about 500 of the total 2,200 TSA security lanes at commercial airports are designated either full time or part time for PreCheck.
Still, since the agency claims great success already with the way it has introduced PreCheck, why then turn to private contractors to take part in processing, especially given concerns about potential abuse or commercial exploitation of personal data collected and stored in the required background checks? In other words, why fix what isn’t broken?
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“What I see with the third parties — and it clearly is not broken; it’s working well — is, can third-party enrollment be a game-changer for the checkpoint of the future?” he responded. “Can we can do it in a partnership with the private sector in ways that go beyond our ability, because we have a reduced budget?” he said.
We’ll be hearing a lot more about these proposed third-party initiatives next year, but let me summarize a few more of Pistole’s comments about the TSA, a once widely reviled agency whose public image, in my opinion, has been significantly improved in the 4 1/2 years Pistole has been the chief.
He said that rules restricting carrying liquids through security would eventually be relaxed as more efficient technology is developed to quickly identify the chemical nature of substances in containers. “The initial ban back in ’06 with that terrorist plot in the U.K. was seen as being temporary, until the technology and procedures could be improved” to efficiently identify substances without creating long backups at security, he said. “But that’s a long-term goal, not in the near future.”
On the other hand, as the holiday season approaches, the TSA has become more relaxed about snow globes. Images in past years of a security screener confiscating Frosty the Snowman as a child wailed might have made for amusing chiding of the TSA, but liquid explosives are the threat that most worries airport security. “Recognizing that we don’t want to let terrorists exploit something by putting a bunch of explosives in an innocent-looking globe, we have allowed the smaller snow globes to travel again,” he said.
At the same time, as Pistole plans to move on to a job as president of his alma mater, Anderson University in Indiana, 2014 will have been a year in which record numbers of guns were found at checkpoints. Airport screeners have found an average of “five, closing on six guns a day so far this year,” he said. As of mid-November, more than 1,900 guns had been discovered at checkpoints, most of them loaded. That already exceeded the record number of guns found in all of 2013: 1,813.
Unauthorized gun-carriers can be arrested, depending on laws in some localities and states. All are fined by the TSA, he said.
In an era in which more Americans routinely carry firearms, airport gun-toters almost always claim that they had simply forgotten about the guns in their bags. Or in some cases, on their belts, as with a 94-year-old man who, a TSA report on Friday said, “attempted to enter the TSA checkpoint at La Guardia with a loaded .38-caliber revolver clipped to his belt in the small of his back on Wednesday.”
Pistole, a former FBI agent, had this advice: “Before you pack, think about what you’re packing.”