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Originally published December 17, 2012 at 9:37 PM | Page modified December 21, 2012 at 12:22 PM

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Airport security procedures revamped as holiday travel begins

As 15 million people in the United States head to airports this holiday season some travelers will find welcome changes to security screening procedures.

The New York Times

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As 15 million people in the United States head to airports this holiday season — slightly fewer than last year — some travelers will find welcome changes to security screening procedures.

The Transportation Security Administration has expanded its PreCheck trusted traveler program to 35 airports, allowing members who have been deemed low risk to keep shoes, jackets and belts on.

Children 12 and under and passengers 75 and older also receive expedited screening at any checkpoint; pilots, flight attendants, members of the military and people with top-secret security clearances qualify at some airports.

John S. Pistole, administrator of the TSA, said in an interview that the agency’s priority this year had been to move toward a risk-based approach to screening, recognizing that the vast majority of travelers are not potential terrorists.

One option being tested is to use dogs that sniff for explosives in tandem with behavior detection officers to divert more people to PreCheck lanes. That process was used at Indianapolis International Airport the day before Thanksgiving, allowing nearly a third of passengers to have expedited screening.

A GAO report released in November found that the TSA did a poor job of tracking and handling customer complaints.

A separate GAO study called for better performance assessments, particularly as a way to gauge whether airports that use private companies to handle screening, under federal supervision, score higher than airports that use TSA employees.

Pistole said the agency was working to improve its relationship with passengers. It is training officers and supervisors to defuse escalating situations at checkpoints, appointing customer service representatives at some airports and creating a process to channel complaints that are not resolved locally to an ombudsman.

The TSA has also resurrected the Aviation Security Advisory Committee that was disbanded years ago.

A subcommittee of that group is working on customer service recommendations that the TSA “won’t love,” said its chairman, Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.

Another member of the subcommittee, Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, shared his own ideas for changes recently in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

Among his suggestions were revising the forbidden items list to focus on explosives, not pointy objects that even maximum-security prisons fail to intercept, and going back to metal detectors for primary screening of passengers.

“We have two giant differences between now and the situation we had back in 9/11,” Leocha said. “We’ve got cockpits which are hardened and we’ve got watch lists that now screen every passenger. Today, there’s less of a reason for invasive searches at the airport, and yet TSA continues to expand their operation.”

Some of the agency’s efforts to expand have met with resistance, however.

A program to buy scanners to verify the authenticity of passengers’ boarding passes and IDs was postponed after members of Congress questioned the program’s $100 million expense.

And both the GAO and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general are investigating a behavior detection program being tested at Logan Airport in Boston, in response to accusations of racial profiling and skepticism about the underlying science.

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