Lawmakers, Airline Groups Express Doubts
by Bill Miller, Washington Post
Random checks of passengers in airport lines do
little to bolster security, Homeland Security Director
Tom Ridge said yesterday, maintaining that the
government and the airline industry must do a better
job of identifying travelers who pose the greatest
Making one of his strongest pushes yet for creation
of a "trusted fliers" program, Ridge predicted that
many passengers would voluntarily pay a fee and agree
to background checks in return for a special card
designed to speed them through checkpoints.
In a meeting with reporters, Ridge provided new
details for an idea he has pursued in recent months.
The program, he said, could be run by the airline
industry, possibly using commercial databases, to help
sort out people deemed "low or no risk" of committing
"I have paid, when I was a frequent traveler, an
annual fee to an airline to get access to coffee and a
stale Danish as I waited for a connection," Ridge
said. "I think people would submit and pay [for
convenience], share that information about themselves.
You can double-check it. And you can make the
rational, responsible assessment as to the likelihood
of these people being terrorists."
But so far, Ridge has not achieved a consensus on
the trusted-flier idea. John W. Magaw, chief of the
Transportation Security Administration, has said he is
wary of any proposal that would allow someone to get
through airport checkpoints without a full security
inspection. In testimony on Capitol Hill, Magaw said
that a patient terrorist could spend years building up
a legitimate background to circumvent security.
The Air Transport Association of America, the
nation's leading airline trade group, has endorsed the
program, but wants the government to manage it and
issue the cards. The government has better databases
and expertise, officials said. "We're not law
enforcement. We're not intelligence agencies," said
ATA Vice President Michael D. Wascom.
Despite recurring complaints about long,
unpredictable lines at security checkpoints, some in
Congress are skeptical of Ridge's plan, too. Rep. Jane
Harman (D-Calif.) said she agreed with Ridge that "we
need a smarter system," but questioned the airlines'
ability to administer it.
Harman, who recently had to take her shoes off
twice before boarding a flight at New York's LaGuardia
Airport, took issue with Ridge's contention that the
random checks are of little use, saying they add
another layer of security.
"I think people are trying very hard to get it
right," Harman said.
Ridge has advocated a similar fast-track approach
to other homeland security efforts. Last week, he
helped unveil a Customs Service project for companies
that agree to meet tighter cargo security standards.
Firms that sign up are given the opportunity to import
their goods and equipment faster across border
Some commuters who travel across the U.S. border
with Canada also can avoid delays by agreeing to
undergo background checks.
Ridge said a trusted-fliers program, still in the
early stages of development, would complement the
Transportation Security Administration's efforts to
tighten security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist
Congress has set a Dec. 31 deadline for putting
federal baggage screeners and bomb detection machines
into 429 U.S. airports. By pre-screening trusted
fliers, Ridge said, the government could focus that
technology -- as well as extra security checks at
airline gates -- on the rest of the passengers.
Ridge has repeatedly questioned the way that people
are selected for more thorough security procedures,
expressing empathy recently for a 67-year-old
grandmother who was singled out. He said the checks
should be used for those who pose the greatest
"As I take a look at the challenge we have, just
about everywhere, whether you're at a border or you're
at an airport, it's really about risk management,"
"You have 285 million Americans and we're going
through a process now at airports of random checks,"
he added. "I've got to tell you . . . I don't think
random checks enhance security very much at airports.
As part of an overall mix, they may not be a bad idea.
But I think we have to bring the same kind of
attention to people at our airports as we do to try
According to Ridge, a trusted-fliers program does
"You've got people who fly constantly," Ridge said,
citing statistics that show 20 percent of the
airlines' passengers account for half the miles
traveled. "If we gave the consumer the opportunity to
share information with the airline so that they could
make an assessment as to whether or not this
individual was a high-risk, low-risk, or no-risk
threat of being a terrorist, that would substantially
enhance security at the airports."