The United States is developing ways to speed up airport security checks by giving favourable treatment to low-risk travellers.
Long wait times to get through security checks at U.S. airports have prompted complaints from travellers and the travel industry, which has called on the government to take steps to improve the process.
“It is something we are working on in a number of ways,” John Pistole, the head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told a meeting of airport executives during a speech in Atlanta last month.
The new “expedited” procedures could include a separate line for passengers deemed low-risk travellers, Pistole said.
He did not, however, say when any changes would be implemented and called for input from airport executives on ways to develop more efficient security checkpoints.
U.S. authorities have faced a backlash from travellers over increased security procedures that now include full-body scanners or physical pat-downs before passengers can board flights.
The government tightened security measures in 2009 after a Nigerian man tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard a trans-Atlantic flight as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009.
In March, a leading travel industry group, the U.S. Travel Association, said the U.S. government should adopt a trusted traveller program and order airlines to permit passengers to check one bag for free to make airport screening faster and encourage more travel.
“I will be the first to admit that our system is not without shortcomings,” Pistole said, referring to the more intrusive screening procedures. “Clearly, the system is not without flaws.”
Identifying low-risk travellers would allow authorities to focus resources on conducting more extensive screening of high-risk passengers, such as the use of human intelligence to identify dangerous passengers before they arrive at airports, Pistole said.
He defended the screening process as being effective in preventing more attacks. But he cautioned that threats remain, particularly after the U.S. raid on May 2 in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Speaking at the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Singapore, Pistole said treating every passenger as having the same risk was not efficient. “We recognise that one size does not fit all,” he said
This week, IATA unveiled a vision of what TSA checks could look like in the future, with a system that divides passengers into three security lanes: enhanced security, normal security and “known traveller”. The system would use iris-recognition technology linked to government databases to separate people. Known travellers would go through an x-ray check, metal detector and liquids check while avoiding frustrating checks like shoe scans.
Sir Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, has criticised the ever-increasing security checks and said the industry is “kowtowing” to American security concerns. “The current procedures have grown, Topsy-like, with each new procedure being superimposed on the existing structure every time there is a new security incident,” he said in a speech earlier this year. “Every time, it’s a procedure to stop a repeat of what has already been attempted rather than a programme to prevent the next new attempt by terrorists.”