More people will soon be eligible to skip long security lines at American airports, Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole announced Friday at the Aspen Security Forum.
Pistole unveiled a plan to widen the popular TSA Pre-check program. The existing TSA Pre-check allows frequent flyers to apply through airlines to gain “known traveler” status and use faster, dedicated security lanes that don’t require removing shoes, belts and laptops at the airport. Members are pre-screened with background checks and fingerprint analysis. The average security wait time for TSA Pre-check travelers is two to three minutes, Pistole reported.
Pistole’s first mention of the program and so-called “happy lanes” drew rare applause from the Security Forum crowd at the Doerr-Hosier Center.
“This initiative will increase the number of U.S. citizens eligible to receive expedited screening,” Pistole said of the expansion.
The agency is aiming to enroll 25 percent of travelers by the end of this year, and 50 percent by the end of 2014. The expanded program will open Pre-check registration to less-frequent flyers and aims to expand to 300 airports. The expedited lanes already are in place at the 40 busiest airports in the country, including Denver International.
TSA Pre-check registration will be available online, Pistole said, with an $85 fee covering three years of enrollment. Applicants will still need to volunteer personal information and submit to a personal interview, background check and fingerprinting.
Since its founding in 2011, 12 million eligible travelers have signed up for TSA Pre-check.
Pistole touted the program as a way to focus more stringent security on travelers who are unknown to the TSA and more likely to be a threat.
“That’s our way of dealing with risk-based security and saying, ‘Let’s get away from the one-size-fits-all, and let’s focus on the those that we can pre-screen,’” he said. “Everybody’s still going through security but there’s no reason we need to treat someone like a terrorist if we’ve already looked at them.”
In light of the recent public backlash against government surveillance and the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, Pistole said the TSA will offer new options when Pre-check customers provide their private information. The agency has partnered with third-party companies, he said, with whom customers can opt to do their background check if they don’t want to give their information to the government.
Pistole would not disclose how the TSA uses the personal information taken for Pre-check eligibility, saying he did not want to provide tools for terrorists seeking entry to the program.
“What we don’t do is publish a list saying, ‘Here is what we use,’” he said.
Pistole’s name has been floated as a possible replacement for U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who announced last week she is stepping down from the post.
Pistole demurred when ABC News correspondent Brian Ross asked about whether he might take the job. Pistole half-jokingly mentioned another candidate in the audience: former Congresswoman and Aspen Institute trustee Jane Harman. She also has been mentioned in media reports about the cabinet appointment.
“There are a number of very well-qualified people, including some sitting in this room,” Pistole said. “I’m not going to mention any in particular — Jane Harman.”