Christopher Elliott: Frequent fliers seek to solve security delays

Stung by the traveling public's disapproval of its one-size-fits-all approach to passenger screening, the Transportation Security Administration last month announced that it would begin testing a new trusted-traveler program. But if you think that the next time you fly, you'll speed through the security line like it's 1999, you'll probably be disappointed.

Only a chosen few will qualify, at no cost, for the first phase of the identity-based pre-screening test, which is scheduled to launch this fall. Elite-level frequent fliers with American and Delta, plus members of other trusted-traveler programs such as Global Entry, which offers a shortcut through U.S. Customs, will be eligible. And the program will initially be available in just four airports: Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Dallas.

That hasn't stopped some from getting excited about the idea, including tourism officials and frequent fliers, who see pre-screening as a more efficient way of checking passengers. But other travelers are skeptical, believing that the concept could create more problems than it solves.

They're both right.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that represents the American travel industry, has been pushing hard for a trusted-traveler option. It recently commissioned an online survey on the program's feasibility, which not surprisingly found that almost two-thirds of frequent leisure travelers would be willing to go through a pre-screening process if they could potentially cut the TSA line and avoid the pat-down or full-body scan. U.S. Travel's survey also suggested that nearly half of all air travelers would pay an annual fee of up to $150 to belong to such a program.

While a successful trusted-traveler program could improve the screening experience, that's not the only reason TSA is heading in that direction, according to Marc Frey, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now works for a Washington law firm. The TSA is running out of ways to check travelers, he says, so "implementing a screening system based on data provided by the traveler is the most efficient and effective alternative."

In a sense, both its supporters and its detractors are right about the trusted-traveler program. Pre-screening passengers via a background check is a far more efficient approach. For some air travelers, and maybe someday for many, it could make air travel less of a hassle.

But at what price? Beyond a possible $100 application fee and perhaps a $150 annual cost, a trusted-traveler program would require other sacrifices. Giving up personal information and other biometric data is troubling to me, and to many air travelers it's completely unacceptable. Getting a pre-flight fingerprint or iris scan is the kind of thing that would have inspired George Orwell to write another dystopian novel.

We already fund the TSA through taxes, a "9/11 Passenger Security Fee" and a ticket tax of $2.50 per flight. Although a TSA spokesman emphasized to me that the program is free during the initial phase, I'm troubled by a screening initiative that could someday cost participants extra.