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TSA looks at separate lines for fliers 'swept' by canines

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/8/2018 Ben Mutzabaugh

Passengers at the USA’s smallest airports will continue to go through security checkpoints just as they have for years. And, passengers who've been sniffed by bomb-sniffing dogs may soon get a separate security line at some U.S. airports. 

Transportation Security Administration chief David Pekoske revealed those details during a Wednesday conversation with USA TODAY’s editorial board in McLean, Virginia. 

Pekoske's comments come after a recent report suggested the TSA had been considering doing away with screening at about 150 of the country’s smallest airports. But, that's not going to happen, the agency's administrator said emphatically. 

“We’re not doing that. Real simple," Pekoske said. “We looked at that and decided that was not an issue worth pursuing. Off the table." (IN-DEPTH'Not worth the risks': TSA chief will keep checkpoints at 150 smaller airports)

The idea, studied as a theoretical option in TSA’s annual budget review, would have allowed the agency to cut costs while also focusing most of its resources on bigger U.S. airports that account for the vast majority of the nation’s passenger traffic. It was first reported by CNN earlier in August.

The idea studied since 2011 was that TSA could drop federal staffing at airports with planes seating up to 60 passengers and save $115 million per year. Those airports serve about 10,000 passengers per day and require nearly 1,300 TSA workers, who could be shifted to larger airports.

There are about 450 U.S. airports with scheduled airline service, though many of those are small operations with limited passenger numbers. Instead, it’s the nation’s biggest airports that for most of the country’s passenger traffic. Underscoring that, just 30 of the USA's busiest hub airports accounted for 72.1% of U.S. enplanements in 2017, according to Airports Council International-North America. 

But there are some changes that passengers could soon see. Pekoske said that new 3-D scanners that are now in about 15 airports could soon expand, possibly allowing passengers to move through airports with their shoes on and without removing liquids or other items from their bags. Limits on the liquid amounts -- currently a maximum of one quart-sized plastic bag with no container bigger than 3.4 ounces -- will remain. 

"I see nothing that would cause us to increase that liquid limitation," Pekoske said. 

One big change fliers could see within the next year involves canines. 

"I’m trying to put more canines out into the system so they’re more present and we don’t just have them patrolling the individual checkpoints at high periods of passenger volume," Pekoske said. "Our procedures are to deploy the dogs throughout the continuum of when the airport is open."

He said that could allow the agency to offer expedited screening to some passengers who've been sniffed by bomb-sniffing dogs. 

"If you’re swept by a canine, you do have lower risk," Pekoske said. "The whole idea is put the right level of security based on the risk that we think a passenger suggests." 

But instead of funneling those passengers into Precheck lines -- a practice that has been criticized by both politicians and passengers -- Pekoske said those fliers would get their own lines at some airports where the agency has the space for additional lanes. 

"That’s something you’ll see," he said, saying the effort will start with a prototype phase from “late fall maybe into early next year, just to see how it works.” 

Aside from acknowledging that some politicians disliked the idea of putting non-registered fliers into Precheck lanes, Pekoske said he also understands why some Precheck passengers may have disliked the effort. 

"I can understand why a Precheck passenger who paid the $85 for the five years (and) voluntarily submitted additional information about themselves for a background check (would be disappointed) when they’re standing in the Precheck lane and see a whole bunch of passengers who are not in Precheck but have been screened by a canine all of a sudden get in front of them." 

Pekoske said the agency still hopes to get more travelers to sign up for Precheck. 

"Really, we want to encourage more and more people to go into Precheck," he said. "That’s better security for us and it ends up being better convenience for the passengers."

Contributing: Bart Jansen 



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