Airport Security: Which Kind of Privacy Will You Surrender?

Do you hate our airport security system? Much of the world does, too, it seems, but they still come calling.

And lucky for us. According to the Commerce Department, the number of overseas visitors to the United States in 2010 finally beat pre-9/11 figures and these tourists kindly dropped some coin, too, spending more than $130 billion on hotels, restaurants and "I Love NY" T-shirts and such.

You'd think we could make it easy for them, but no. However you want to put it, airport security remains a pain, in this country and beyond.

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Not that airport security in other countries is run by the TSA, of course, but apparently we exert a fair amount of influence. A recent report in the UK's Guardian, for example, claims that a partial relaxation on the ban of bringing liquids through security was dropped thanks to pressure from the United States (and no, I doubt anyone's "thanking" us for that).

Then there's this quote from Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA): "Our passengers should be able to get from the curb to the gate with dignity, without stopping, without stripping ... and certainly without groping."

Yes, it would be nice to do without those "enhanced pat-downs" wouldn't it? For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, that's your alternative to the body scanner, should you refuse it for reasons of potential health risks or potential privacy risks (I've undergone both these security measures, and would happily take a pass on either one).

Hold on. Change is in the wind. I think.

In March, Homeland Security's Janet Napolitano said the United States is working at on "an airport checkpoint of tomorrow," while this month at the IATA's conference in Singapore, that Jetsonian theme was expanded at IATA executives unveiled a "Checkpoint of the Future." It involves "risk assessments," biometric identifiers in your passport and three separate passenger lanes.

TSA head John Pistole, also in Singapore, repeated his frequent observation that "one size does not fit all" for security as he spoke about a new frequent traveler program for flyers in the United States. They must volunteer to share details about their travel patterns, frequent flyer details and more, and in exchange for allowing the government to get nosy, they undergo less stringent security and a speedier experience.

The question is, how much information would you be willing to divulge about yourself and your plans? Plus, what would it cost? Pertinent questions considering the general economy, as well as past private-sector experiments like "Clear" with its fast-track security lanes. Clear went out of business a few years back but has since resurrected itself; it charges passengers $179 per subscription, but as of this writing is available in just two airports, Denver and Orlando.

I think it is just safe to say the privatization of "cut in line" security has failed to catch on broadly and probably needs the full support and resources of TSA to get off the ground (as it were). In any event, it will be interesting to see how the TSA's new plan plays out.

However, testing for the U.S. system probably won't begin until November or December and the IATA's "Checkpoint of the Future" is probably years away.

Here's another question: Will it work? One thing to consider is that according to Interpol, there are something like 28 million stolen passports and identity cards floating around out there these days. The authorities did catch something like 40,000 people using phony documents last year, but that's not even 1 percent.

You would hope the United States, which not long ago unveiled a new $100 bill with counterfeit-stumping 3D technology, could come up with something a little better for its passports, too. Would be nice.

But I'll be a happy camper if they can just come up with a better alternative than the enhanced pat-downs. And I know I'll have a lot of company.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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