Miércoles 7 de Septiembre de 2005, Ip nº 125

Don't Let That Ticket Out of the Screener's Sight

BOARDING passes must be in your hand at all times!"

I fumbled as I tried to accommodate the airport security man who stood like a goalie on the far side of the magnetometer.

Like most of you, I thought I had gotten the checkpoint drill down: taking off shoes, slipping the laptop out of its case and into a separate bin, dropping coins and keys into still another bin, sliding the bins along so as not to hold up the line.

But this new rule, which is being enforced with varying rigidity at airports, had me flummoxed. Hadn't I already presented my boarding pass and ID for inspection at the start of the security line?

"Boarding passes cannot be in your pocket," the magnetometer fellow hollered. Having no other option, I displayed the boarding pass in my teeth, like a dog with a fat pork chop, till I got my stuff trundling along the belt. Only then did I have a hand free to present it at the magnetometer.

The boarding-pass shuffle is the latest little twist in checkpoint confusion, but there may be good news ahead. This month, as initially reported by The Washington Post, Kip Hawley, the new boss at the Transportation Security Administration, drafted a list of possible rule changes that could, if put in place, do a lot to reduce the hassle factor.

One would allow passengers to pack pocket knives and scissors in their carry-on bags. Another would let most keep their shoes on. Another would let laptops stay in their cases.

That's the new management's thinking. But what did old management think of this initiative? I put the question to Tom Ridge, who was the head of Homeland Security for just over three years, starting in October 2001. Most of the current checkpoint procedures were put in place during his tenure; did he agree that some of them ought to be jettisoned?

He did. In focusing so intently on things people might be carrying, "I think we probably overreacted," Mr. Ridge told me at this month's annual convention of the National Business Travel Association in San Diego. "Does anybody truly think you could take over an airplane with fingernail clippers, nail files, cuticle scissors? The answer is absolutely not. We need to move from looking for weapons to paying attention to people who are or could be terrorists."

He didn't mean eliminating magnetometer scans for weapons or explosives. New checkpoint technologies, in fact, would enhance the ability to do that, he said. But there are better ways to look at people and send them to their gates more efficiently while maintaining tight security, he suggested.

I asked him about the changes being discussed for expediting the movement of passengers, especially frequent fliers, through the checkpoints. He expressed strong support for the proposed registered-traveler program, which would streamline the process for travelers who undergo background checks and provide personal information, including biometric data like iris scans.

The program is being tested by the T.S.A. at a half-dozen airports. If it is adopted, frequent fliers will be able to register and, if cleared, routinely pass through checkpoints without being hauled aside for a secondary screening - unless something unusual sets off the alarm. To register, these travelers - and it is presumed that millions of the most frequent business travelers would be among them - would pay an annual fee, which has not yet been set. They would carry electronic cards encoded with personal data, including iris scans and fingerprints. The cards would be tied electronically to a vast federal database of personal information, including financial and law enforcement records.

Naturally, there is a lot of concern about the potential for invading personal, or even corporate, security.

But the program has strong support among business travelers. In a recent statement, the National Business Travel Association said the program "would allow more than six million frequent business travelers rapid processing through the new screening procedures" while better enabling airport security personnel "to focus their attention and resources on passengers who pose a legitimate hijacking threat."

Mr. Ridge used his own experience as an example of how scattershot current checkpoint procedures are.

"I have been pulled into secondary inspection about a dozen times since I became a private citizen," he said. "I've got the drill down pretty good - palms up, arms out; sit down on that seat; put your feet exactly where they tell you to put your feet."

Under a registered traveler program, millions of pre-cleared passengers, reliably identified, could pass through basic security under the presumption that their intentions are good. "We can't eliminate all risk, but we can manage it - and we can conclude you're not a terrorist," Mr. Ridge said.

  30/08/2005. The New York Times.