The Marketplace Report: 'Trusted Traveler' Plan Broke

Alex Chadwick speaks with Bob Moon of Marketplace about a potential "trusted travelers" program, intended to let frequent flyers speed through airport security if they present data that proves they're no threat. The program has run out of funding at five major airports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The Registered Traveler program that allowed certain travelers to speed through airport security checkpoints has now run out of money. Taxpayer funding ends this week for pilot programs at five major airports. Still, some travel industry leaders say the idea may be revived if passengers are willing to pay to get to the head of the line. Joining us is Bob Moon of the "Marketplace" news bureau in New York.

Bob, how's this trusted traveler program been working?

BOB MOON reporting:

Hey, Alex.

The way some industry leaders see it, it's been working quite well for the past year. The test markets for this, if you will, had been focused on particular airlines at airports in Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, at Bush Intercontinental in Houston and Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. About 2,000 travelers at each of those locations--roughly 10,000 frequent travelers in all--have taken part in this pilot program. They've had to voluntarily give up personal data, which is then been checked against federal law enforcement records. The Transportation Security Administration also collects biometric data, that is to say, participants have to be fingerprinted and/or have a retina scan.

Business travel groups say that this idea has worked very well. They've been pushing to have it extended to all the country's major airports. The TSA says it's now going to study the way it's gone, and it's really giving no indication of when or how this might be implemented down the road.

CHADWICK: Well, this has been taxpayer-funded so far, but it could become a privilege that travelers pay for. In fact, isn't there already existing one program where you sign up for 80 bucks or something and somehow get to the front of the line?

MOON: Yeah, exactly right. There's been a separate test program under way at Orlando International since July, and that airport actually hired a private company to run its program. And as you say, they collect a fee of $80 a year to pay for this. One former TSA official who was involved with this idea until recently says that that's the way he expects this to end up being implemented widely, that it'll come back as a fee-based program not involving any tax money.

CHADWICK: But that would mean, you know, you pay to get to the front of the line. It's going to engender some ill feelings maybe.

MOON: Yeah, the obvious question about whether preferential treatment should go to those who are lucky enough to pay for it. I'm kind of reminded of the controversy over the so-called Lexus lanes out there in California...

CHADWICK: Yeah.

MOON: ...about being able to pay to drive in the car pool lanes. I was looking into this on the Internet this morning. I ran across a blog that criticized this as a way to get privileged white guy status with a `get-out-of-strip-search-free' card. Beyond that also, some civil libertarians have questioned this program from the very start over privacy concerns. They think this could be the first step to making everybody submit all their personal information.

Today in the "Marketplace" newsroom, we're looking into a surge in late credit card payments as high gasoline prices take their toll.

CHADWICK: Oh, thank you, Bob.

Bob Moon of public radio's daily business show "Marketplace," produced by American Public Media.

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