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BWI among airports to adopt prescreening program

Before year's end, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will be part of a passenger prescreening program that allows low-risk travelers to keep their belts and shoes on and their laptops in their bags as they go through security checkpoints.

But the airport's largest carrier — Southwest — will not participate, as it concentrates instead on its $1 billion merger with AirTran and the consolidation of their ticketing systems. Southwest and AirTran account for roughly 70 percent of BWI's traffic.

All three of the Baltimore-Washington region's airports were included in the announcement Wednesday by the Transportation Security Administration that it would expand its trusted traveler program — called TSA PreCheck — to 28 major U.S. airports. An agency spokesman said an implementation date had not been set for BWI.

Since its launch last fall at seven airports, TSA PreCheck has screened about 336,000 passengers. The program is being offered by American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to its high-mileage frequent fliers. US Airways, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines will begin using PreCheck later this year.

TSA Administrator John Pistole said the program was a departure from "a one-size-fits-all approach to a more intelligence-driven, risk-based transportation security system."

At BWI, Delta, US Airways, United and American have a total of 87 daily departures. Southwest and AirTran have nearly 250 together.

A spokeswoman for Southwest called PreCheck "an interesting endeavor."

"We are still looking at the program," spokeswoman Ashley Dillon said. "But right now our resources are allocated elsewhere."

Consumer watchdog groups and business associations applauded the expansion of the prescreening program.

"Doing a precheck screening is brilliant," said Katie Hanni, director of FlyersRights.org. "We wish it had been implemented instead of body scanners and pat-downs."

Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, a trade group for travel managers, told the Los Angeles Times: "As an association, faster, more efficient and smarter travel processes that ensure the traveling public's safety are our top priority and essential for business travelers."

Pistole said his agency recognized that most passengers do not pose a threat to security. Expanding PreCheck will allow officers to spend more time screening travelers who do appear to pose a risk. Currently, officers scan 1.8 million passengers a day.

The TSA did not have figures on how much time a PreCheck passenger could save by bypassing the regular line, but travel bloggers have estimated it to be as much as 15 minutes.

To participate in the program, travelers must submit background information on a TSA website to receive an identification number. When buying tickets online with a participating airline, travelers will be required to enter their ID number.

Approved ticket holders will get an embedded code in their boarding pass that will be scanned by TSA officers. PreCheck fliers will be directed to a faster security line.

In addition to being able to keep their shoes and belts on, approved passengers will not have to take off their sweaters or light jackets and will not be required to remove liquid toiletries from their carry-on luggage.

However, PreCheck passengers may on occasion still be required to go through regular screening as a way of maintaining randomness in the security process, Pistole told a Senate committee last fall.

"At no point are TSA [PreCheck] travelers guaranteed expedited screening," he said.

In addition to airline frequent-flier program participants, PreCheck also is valid for anyone participating in one of the three trusted-traveler programs of the U.S. government: Global Entry, SENTRI or NEXUS.

This collaboration among the government, airports and airlines advances a concept used several years ago in a registered-traveler program called Clear, which was operated by Verified Identity Pass and established itself at 16 U.S. airports. The company declared bankruptcy after the TSA suspended its right to operate in 2008 when a laptop containing information on 33,000 of Clear's members was stolen.

Hanni said PreCheck should be embraced by all airlines.

"People hate the scanners and they hate the pat-downs. Why should we be curtailing travel when we have this tool available?" she said. "Not one terrorist has ever been caught at an airport security point. We need security, not security theater."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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