TSA'S PRECHECK: DOOMED AT TAKEOFF
By Joe Brancatelli
October 5, 2011 -- You know the old maxim about a camel being a horse designed by committee? Here's a new maxim that business travelers are sure to be using in the weeks and months ahead: The TSA's so-called PreCheck program is designed by a committee of camels intent on making sure frequent flyers never get to see a horse.
Launched on Tuesday at four major-hub airports, the pilot program is what the TSA claims is a good-faith attempt at creating a "trusted traveler" program to whisk low-risk flyers through airport security. The idea of moving verifiable, known flyers through security quickly has not only been the holy grail for business travelers in the post-9/11 era, it is baked into the law that created the TSA in November 2001.
We don't already have a full-blown trusted-traveler program at airports because the TSA intentionally strangled every entrepreneur's attempt to launch one in the past decade. And this new pilot is almost surely designed to fail because it has none of the benefits an honest attempt at a "trusted traveler" program would offer the nation's elite frequent flyers. The TSA has made PreCheck so conditional, and it offers so little in the way of consistent benefits, that there's virtually no chance the pilot could ever logically be deemed a success.
Before you can fully understand how completely the TSA has set up PreCheck to fail, you need to understand just a bit about how security works—or, more accurately, how it should work—at the nation's approximately 450 commercial airports.
From the moment the United States federalized airport security under the aegis of the TSA after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, anyone who knew anything about air travel understood what we might as well call the Ivory Soap Paradigm. Like the soap that once claimed to be 99.44 percent pure, we knew that virtually all of the almost one billion people who passed through the nation's airports annually were not terrorists. Almost none of them need to be hassled, asked to remove their shoes, unpack their laptops, or stick all their liquids into a tiny plastic bag.
The problem of how to separate the 99.44-percent-pure passengers from the isolated few who merit closer scrutiny before being allowed to board a commercial aircraft was never even that much of an obstacle. The law envisioned a scenario where third-party entrepreneurs and private enterprise would devise schemes to allow flyers to prove their purity in advance and be part of a "trusted traveler" security-bypass program.
Private enterprise answered the call. Led by journalist and serial entrepreneur Steven Brill, at least three firms created what were then dubbed "registered traveler" plans. In exchange for submitting biometric information about themselves, these registered travelers were supposed to be able to avoid some of the indignities of the airport-security process. But the TSA ensured that never happened, imposing one absurd rule after another on the operations. All three registered-traveler plans collapsed in 2009 because they were unable to attract enough travelers willing to pay upwards of $200 a year for security bypass that never materialized.
But after last Thanksgiving's PR fiasco over new scanning technologies, TSA Administrator John Pistole was forced to retrench and admit the obvious: The more of those 99.44-percent-pure travelers you could move through the system quickly, the more time the TSA would have to focus on the genuine potential threats.
Thus was born PreCheck, a name adopted with Tuesday morning's launch to replace Expedited Screening Pilot Program (ESP), the unwieldy original moniker. Never mind that another facet of post-9/11 security specifically created for private enterprise was being co-opted by the TSA, PreCheck at least promised to reestablish the concept that many travelers, and especially frequent flyers, could be proven safe and be exempted from the security Kabuki at the nation's airport.
To the TSA's credit, the underpinnings of the PreCheck plan are rational, even elegant. For potential volunteers, it plumbed the list of pre-cleared "trusted travelers" enrolled in several programs operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It then worked with Delta Air Lines and American Airlines to identify elite frequent flyers using four major hubs: Detroit/Metro, Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas/Fort Worth.
But that's when the TSA's committee of camels took over. Business flyers want (and have proven they will pay for) a trusted-traveler plan that offers a consistent experience, speedy processing at the security checkpoint and exemption from the annoying game of hide-and-seek TSA agents play with our shoes, computers, toiletries, and outer garments. Yet PreCheck is specifically designed to frustrate all of those aspirations.
Consider this, for example: Travelers accepted for PreCheck are not even guaranteed the right to use it. It's only at the checkpoints that PreCheck participants will be told if they can use PreCheck facilities for that particular flight. A program that is so random as to sometime or most of the time bar members is of dubious value to business travelers.
But, wait, there's more. Or, more accurately, less.
A flyer distributed by TSA when the plan was still called ESP seems to promise much. "For select participants," it explains, "pilot program benefits may include no longer removing…shoes, [toiletries] bag from carry-on, laptop from bag, light outerwear/jacket, belt."
Notice the weasel word "may." The TSA promises nothing. In other words, if you're in PreCheck and if the TSA allows you to participate on a selected flight once you've reached the security checkpoint, you might be able to leave your shoes on and your laptop in its case if the TSA feels like allowing you to do so.
That, of course, destroys the entire concept of a known/trusted/registered-traveler plan. Without knowing the rules of the game, business flyers gain nothing from PreCheck. No time is saved, no hassle is avoided, and no trust is built between the government agency and the 99.44 percent of us who are not a risk to commercial aviation.
Naturally, the TSA committee of camels trots out its all-purpose excuse whenever it chooses not to commit to any particular (and thus quantifiable) procedure: If we tell you what we're doing, then the terrorists will know. In other words, you can be known, trusted, and registered, but you could still be a terrorist, and we judge you guilty until we run you through an ever-changing series of hoops to prove your innocence.
Or, to use the TSA's exact words, which appeared on a webpage that was removed on Tuesday: "Passengers are always subject to random, unpredictable screening measures.… At no point is this an entitlement club."
Then what is the point?
The Fine Print…
There are several major shifts in the hotel landscape to report. Hyatt Hotels has purchased nearly two dozen Hotel Sierra properties and will convert them and its existing Summerfield Suites extended-stay hotels into the Hyatt House brand. Meanwhile, two boutique brands, the mostly East Coast Thompson Hotels and the mostly West Coast Joie de Vivre chain are merging. For the moment, the new parent company of the 45 properties is called JT Hospitality. And Accor, the gigantic French lodging group, is slapping its Mercure name on 24 former Ramada Jarvis hotels in the United Kingdom. The hotels were taken over by the lender, Royal Bank of Scotland, after the previous owned defaulted.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.