published Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Airport travel hassle? Maybe not.

Americans rarely are afraid to let those in authority know what they think about an issue or event. It's no wonder, then, that federal officials, airlines and airport operators are swamped by complaints about the security screening process put in place after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Few like the system they generally describe as flawed, intrusive, abusive and with other words and phrases that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

Officials at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the inspection programs, certainly are aware of the public discontent. They've tweaked the screening process several times over the years, but never seem to streamline it or minimize the more demeaning parts of the process. Now, the TSA will try again. It has little choice.

Airport screening regularly ranks high among Americans' dislikes. Last year, that distaste grew even greater after the agency implemented rules that required invasive pat-downs for travelers who did not want to undergo full-body scans. Moreover, the agency continues to struggle with ways to screen elderly, invalid and very young passengers without compromising safety standards or humiliating those screened. The public's fury remains.

To counteract that, the agency is starting a trial program to reduce the time and hassle involved in passenger checks at airports in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit and Miami. The voluntary procedure applies only to a select group of travelers in certain airline frequent-flier programs, or in three government-operated traveler programs. However, it involves a trade-off that some individuals might be unwilling to make. Still, the experiment is worthwhile.

The "Pre-Check" program requires passengers to allow airlines and government agencies to share extensive personal information with the TSA. In return, passengers might be granted the right to move through checkpoints swiftly -- without taking off shoes and belts or exposing the contents of travel bags. Note the "might." The TSA reserves the right to use traditional screening methods when it deems it useful.

Initial reports from travelers who have participated in the new program is positive. They like the speed and the ease of the process, though there are concerns about the required sharing of personal information beyond the traditional name, gender and birthdate. The test program apparently requires such things as home and email addresses, phone number and the language an individual speaks. That doesn't bother some travelers. They say the government already has or can find that information in a hurry if it wants to do so.

There is reason to worry, though, about how and where the information provided by those who participate in the trial will be used, and, given past lapses, to wonder if it will be secure. Nevertheless, the program is worth a try. Americans can always hope that TSA will create a system that reduces the stress of travel without unduly compromising safety or individual rights.

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