Airport security lines: detour ahead

Registered traveler programs, which speed preapproved fliers through checkpoints, are set to expand to 20 US airports in '08.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The E-Z Pass of the air could be coming soon to an airport near you.

The registered traveler program, conceived after 9/11 as a way to speed frequent fliers through airports' long and unpredictable security lines, is finally gaining national momentum.

Though it isn't expected to be operational in enough airports to ease those jam-packed security lines for this peak flying season, it should help by next summer, when as many as 20 major airports are expected to have special security lanes for registered travelers.

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With planes packed to record capacity and security concerns heightened after the foiled terrorist attacks in Britain, the expansion of the registered traveler (RT) program at least may give passengers something to look forward to as they pad barefoot through metal detectors this summer.

Some analysts say the RT program could spur a series of new conveniences at airports, such as special RT parking lots and waiting rooms. Eventually, RT cards could be used to ease screening logjams at places like sports stadiums and large concerts, they say.

But many see another benefit to RT: It could help struggling airlines improve their bottom lines by cutting the hassle factor enough to entice more people back to the air.

"The most profound aspect of this could be its impact on airlines' revenues, profits, and share prices," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "That's because the last six passengers generally make a difference between profit and loss on a given flight and, since 9/11, there's been a falloff in business travel that's never rebounded."

Only six airports currently have RT programs that provide a special security lane for people willing to pay a one-time fee of $100, go through a background check, and a biometric iris scan. That number could triple by next summer, with busy airports in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, and Newark, N.J., adding the program.

The goal is to make air travel easier for everyone who hops a flight, not just for the wing-tipped briefcase crowd. The idea is the same as for E-Z Pass: There's less traffic congestion for everyone when passholders can speed through the toll booths.

"Our customers spend between 30 seconds and four minutes going through security – sometimes it's five or six minutes on a very busy Monday morning," says Steve Brill, founder of CLEAR, a private company that operates the first and largest of the RT programs. "For everybody else, it's five minutes to an hour. The issue is predictability."

It's estimated that RT lanes can process three times more people than a garden-variety security line. That's because registered travelers have already undergone a background check and in some places, like Orlando International in Florida, they even get to keep their shoes on during screening. But perhaps more important, say analysts, is that registered travelers are regular fliers like Henry Morgan, a regional manager of Highline Products who departs out of the Orlando airport.

He takes to the skies so often he's already got the change out of his pockets and any liquids out of his carry-on long before he gets to the security line. He was one of the first people to sign up for CLEAR's RT pilot program when it started almost two years ago in Orlando.

"I wish it were all over the country," Mr. Morgan says of the RT program. "I've seen lines an hour an a half long on many occasions. It's horrendous. With CLEAR, I'm through security from start to finish in five minutes. It's the predictability and it's helped me get through by the skin of my teeth on more than one occasion."

The program is a kind of public-private partnership. The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) certifies private companies such as CLEAR and sets security standards. The companies, in turn, contract with airports and airlines to provide their services.

Some security analysts are worried that "sleeper cell" terrorists could become registered travelers and, in that way, exploit the system. TSA, though, notes that registered travelers still go through screening before boarding a plane. Moreover, the background check system for the RT program is the same as the one used to give clearance to airport employees and those who work on the tarmac, Mr. Brill says. CLEAR's system is updated each day with new information, and a person's RT status can be revoked immediately if questions are raised about that individual.

TSA also allows RT companies to experiment with new technology and, if it works, will let them use it.

At New York's John Kennedy International Airport and at the Orlando airport, the shoe-scanners in CLEAR lanes are a case in point. Mr. Brill hopes that TSA will soon give its permission to deploy the shoe-scanner at all CLEAR sites.

"The good news is that they asked us to come up with technology ideas. The other good news is that we came up with technology ideas," says Brill. "But the bad news is that approval is frustratingly slow."

Brill's company is working with other firms to develop a scanner that will allow registered travelers to keep their jackets on and another that could make it possible for travelers to bring their laptops in their cases.

Other companies, such as Unisys, have also begun offering airports registered traveler programs.

Brill and others are working, too, to expand the RT program internationally.

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