Travel groups are lobbying for legislation that would modernize the Transportation Security Administration by expanding the PreCheck program and updating security technology.
Organizations including the Global Business Travel Association and the U.S. Travel Association for years have backed expanding the PreCheck program, which permits passengers to leave on their shoes, belts and light jackets when they go through security. They argue it enhances security, while also shortening security lines at airports.
“The reason for PreCheck is because you’re now in a vetted population, and it allows TSA to have more time and resources towards the real threats to aviation security instead of the family that’s going to Disney or is taking their vacation, or the business traveler that’s traveling four to six times a year,” Lorraine Howerton, senior director of U.S. Travel Association, told the Washington Examiner. “It really is a convenience, and it is a security enhancer at the same time.”
Andrew Meehan, vice president of government relations at Global Business Travel Association, agrees. “It’s always been a priority for GBTA to support PreCheck because it’s one of those things that increases security, while at the same time, facilitates travel,” he said.
In September, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the TSA Modernization Act, and it was approved by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last month. The billl would require the TSA to create a minimum of four private sector partnerships to market and facilitate enrollment in the PreCheck program so more travelers are vetted ahead of time.
Thune said the legislation responds to the challenges aviation security faces now and in the future.
“TSA must learn from disappointing security testing results, terrorist attacks abroad, and traveler frustration to rise to the occasion, embrace necessary changes, and meet its critically important mission of keeping travelers safe and secure,” Thune said in a statement.
Additionally, the legislation establishes goals for PreCheck program enrollment. By fiscal 2020, 15 million should be registered in the program, upping enrollment by 10 million from the current 5 million.
Travel groups are supporting the involvement of third parties in enrollment because they argue it would lower costs and allow alternative options for registration.
“One thing we would love to see and this legislation does include is kiosks at the airport that do all of the application process for PreCheck,” Howerton said. “Currently as it stands, you have to go and get your fingerprint taken, and you have to look for a facility where you can actually do that. So, third parties involved in the process allows for flexibility in getting folks to sign up.”
Additionally, two forms of identification are required to be eligible for the PreCheck program, rather than the one form needed to board a plane. This is a deterrent for some, Howerton said.
Although the TSA has increased enrollment numbers, travel groups contend it cannot keep up with the influx of passengers it must screen.
“The challenge is though that, in spite of its value and a lot of the great work TSA has done, enrollment has not been as aggressive to have a lot of value when measured against the overall numbers,” Meehan said.
Just last month, a coalition of eight travel groups, including Global Business Travel Association and the U.S. Travel Association, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., advocating for the legislation and citing that in 2016, TSA screened more than 100 million travelers more than they did in 2013. They additionally noted that TSA has experienced two out of 10 of the busiest days in its history within the past year.
“It is clear that the rate with which air travel continues to grow outpaces the PreCheck’s current rate of enrollment. The risk to aviation security continues to evolve as terrorists continue to look for new ways to carry out deadly attacks on our nation’s aviation system. New threats continue to emerge,” the groups wrote.
“While PreCheck does not necessarily allay these threats, it is an important tool for TSA that removes risk from aviation security and is an important part of the agency’s risk-based approach to aviation security."
Supporters of the legislation also cite the growth in the number of passengers. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is a co-sponsor of the bill and noted that in 2016, the TSA screened 738 million passengers, averaging more than 2 million each day.
“[TSA’s] challenging task is to protect our aviation sector from terrorists, criminals, and smugglers,” Blunt said in a statement. “Travelers expect airports to be safe, but they also expect them to operate efficiently.”
David Inserra, policy analyst for homeland security and cyber policy at the Heritage Foundation, believes expanding the PreCheck program is possible, but must be executed “wisely.”
“We have to make sure that the people we are putting in that low risk category do fit that low risk definition and actually are low risk,” Inserra said.
He added that using third parties to assist with enrollment must provide equivalent or better vetting standards.
The bill also would require TSA to create certification standards that would permit third party explosive-detections dogs to be used by TSA to assist with screening passengers and luggage. Furthermore, TSA must provide wait time information of each of the airport security checkpoints to the public online and in airport terminals.
Travel groups say they will continue supporting the legislation. Meehan said the Global Business Travel Association will work with the committee to ensure it receives time on the floor.
Although the groups do not agree on every issue, Meehan says they remain united on this piece of legislation.
“A lot of these groups have a lot of disagreements over major pieces of legislation ranging from air traffic control reform to open skies,” Meehan said. “I think the travel industry has spoken on this one. They’re in strong support of the TSA Modernization Act.”