Call it the E-ZPass of the air. Well, almost.
This week a select group of frequent fliers in Minneapolis, including Charlie Zelle, signed up for an experimental "registered traveler" program. It's designed to speed them through those sometimes long security lines at the airport.
In exchange, Mr. Zelle and the other airport regulars have given the government the right to check up on them to be sure they're neither terrorists nor wanted felons. "Traveling is difficult as it is. This hopefully will make it one step more relaxing," he says.
Minneapolis is the first of five pilot programs that will be set up around the country this summer. An estimated 10,000 travelers who fly an average of once a week will also get the opportunity to register in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, and Boston. The experience gleaned from the programs will be used to develop a national program in the future.
For the airlines, this fast-track screening program is a long-awaited fix for the hassles accompanying air travel since Sept. 11. At least, they're hoping it is. Registered travelers will still have to go through the basic screening process as everyone else, but they'll be spared the more intrusive second round that's currently done randomly.
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is hoping the program will not only speed up the screening process, but also increase overall security by allowing screeners to focus on other, unregistered fliers.
While it sounds like a much-needed boon for harried business fliers like Zelle, there are critics aplenty. Even though the program is voluntary, privacy advocates contend that the protections for keeping personal information private are insufficient. In addition, some critics believe it will create a coterie of elite fliers that will be given special treatment, while the rest of American travelers will be subjected to even more intense scrutiny.
Finally, some aviation experts think this might have been a good idea right after Sept. 11, but now that the TSA has increased screening efficiency, the program is a waste of resources that would be better spent increasing overall security.
"At this point, it could be a solution in search of a problem," says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition. "With some exceptions the security lines are nowhere near as onerous as they were ... after 9/11, so I'm not sure what the real benefit is going to be."
The TSA isn't quite sure either, at least yet, which is why they're doing the pilot programs. In e-mails sent to Northwest's frequent fliers in Minneapolis, it warns: "Due to the nature of test programs, Northwest Airlines and the TSA cannot guarantee that becoming a Registered Traveler will provide expedited processing while passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport." The primary purpose, it explains, is to test biometric technology.
But Mr. Zelle, the CEO of a bus company who travels on average once a week, is optimistic that it will take some of the insecurity out of his traveling day. The biggest problem for him now is not necessarily the wait at security lines, but not knowing if there will or won't be one.
So on Monday, he provided TSA officials with two government IDs, his addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information. Then he had his fingerprints taken and an iris scan.
But many aviation experts ask whether this program will actually produce the promised, speedy results. "Even with this sort of trusted-traveler program, there will be some minimal checking of these people," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. "My question is how much time is that really going to save?"
Both the airlines and the TSA are hoping a lot. "If a handful of people can avoid the secondary screening process, which typically takes between three and five minutes, that will have a cumulative impact on the wait times for all passengers," says the TSA's Ann Davis. But other critics worry that if you take one security line and dedicate it solely to registered travelers, the wait for everyone else will only get longer.
Then there are questions about how easy it would be for a patient, well-financed terrorist to become a trusted traveler. Some critics contend it wouldn't be hard at all, particularly if heor she had been in this country in a sleeper cell for some years. But supporters counter that since the government will be checking back for decades into a person's history, it would take lots of time, money, and patience.
Even the program's big supporters admit that nothing is foolproof these days, although they still believe the program could create big improvements at airports.
"Anyone who's waited in these lines knows that it would be great to get a jump on them," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "It's a voluntary program. If you don't like it, don't sign up."