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House OKs easing airport screening for troops

Nov. 29, 2011 - 08:53PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2011 - 08:53PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday voted unanimously to allow military travelers on official duty to get a special preference to move through airport security checks faster.

The bill, approved 404-0, would give the Homeland Security Department six months to devise a preference system for the armed forces. The legislation went to the Senate.

If the bill becomes law, the earliest beneficiaries would likely be troops returning from Afghanistan next year and their family members, who also would receive preferential treatment.

The government already has initiated, and is expanding, a more intelligence-driven trusted traveler program for civilians. Participants include travelers in American and Delta airlines' frequent flier programs as well as people who are part of three other programs. These people volunteer more information about themselves so that the government can vet them before they arrive at airport security checkpoints.

Chief sponsor Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., said it takes longer for men and women in uniform to pass through security because of their gear, medals on their uniforms and boots that must be unlaced. Allowing them through security more quickly would speed up the waiting time for those not part of a preference program, he said.

While Homeland Security would establish the new preferential system, Cravaack envisions troops not having to remove boots, belt buckles, bulky military jackets and medals. Troops could go to the front of the line, or a separate line could be created.

"This falls in line with the pilot program" now underway, Cravaack said. "I was an airline pilot for 17 years. We would go to the head of the line. I saw people who were not exactly happy with that.

"But the main emphasis is expediting troops going through a security process that wasn't made for them."

Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, said her passenger rights group "strongly supports expedited screening for the military and that should be extended to all law enforcement, DOD folks with security clearance and other government officials with security clearance."

The Transportation Security Administration is currently testing a trusted traveler program at airports in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami. The program will expand to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul over the next few months.

The civilian program allows participants to go to a dedicated lane. The traveler will provide the TSA officer with a boarding pass that has information about his or her vetted and trusted status embedded in the barcode. A machine will read the barcode, and if the traveler is deemed part of a "low-risk" category, he or she will likely be able to keep on belts, shoes and jackets and leave laptops and liquids in bags when going through the screening process.

In addition, TSA on Nov. 15 began a test at the Monterey Peninsula Airport in California, allowing members of the armed forces to present their Defense Department identification card for scanning. The experiment is only to see if the scanning system works, but there is no change in screening procedures.

Although it's a policy, not law, the TSA already makes some accommodations to service members in uniform with a proper identification card.

They are not required to remove their shoes or boots unless they set off an alarm. Family members can obtain gate passes to accompany departing troops or meet those returning. The agency expedites screening for wounded troops.

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