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Registered traveler program to begin testing

Frequent fliers would be expedited at 5 airports
Transportation Security Administration

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday it will launch an experimental program this month to speed frequent travelers through airport security checkpoints.

Groups representing business travelers have pleaded for relief from lengthy preflight security lines, and the registered traveler program tries to strike a compromise between that goal and addressing safeguards imposed after the September 11 attacks.

Frequent travelers who voluntarily submit to background checks will be given registered traveler cards. Travelers will have to give the TSA their fingerprints and a scan of the irises of their eyes. The eye scan is among measures known as biometric identifications.

Under the three-month pilot program, registered travelers will still have to go through what is called a primary screening -- placing carry-on items on conveyer belts at screening points and stepping through a magnetometer. But the cards will allow them, in most cases, to be exempt from secondary screening involving metal-detecting wands.

In a statement, David Stone, acting administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, said that the plan "will provide frequent travelers with the means to expedite the screening experience without compromising on security."

Department spokesman Mark Hatfield said participants should have reasonable expectations. "If you have a 45-minute wait at Hartsfield International [in Atlanta], it won't turn into five minutes," he said.

"There is not a perfect layer of security. There is no airport screening system that is 100 percent risk-free, but this is built in such a way that it precludes to the highest degree possible circumvention and abuse."

The TSA will phase in the program at five airports, drawing participants from airlines' frequent traveler programs who travel at least once a week in selected markets.

Pilot program

Each volunteer will provide the TSA with information including name, address, phone number, date of birth, place of birth and e-mail address. The TSA will then check the information against FBI and intelligence databases and terror watch lists. The information will not be checked against commercial databases, Hatfield said.

At least initially, the registered travelers will enter designated lines that will remain open to other travelers. But registered travelers may get their own lanes as the program grows.

A business travel group said the program will be of limited value to participants if they have to stand in the same lines as nonparticipants.

"Our members specifically support a system that gets them out of the main line," said Garth Jopling, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. "Other than that, the guarantee of limited secondary screenings is the only other tangible benefit."

The five airports in the pilot program are:

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul International in Minnesota: Beginning in late June, participants in Northwest Airlines' frequent-flier program will be invited to join the registered traveler program. Checkpoint operations at the airport are scheduled to begin in early July.
  • Los Angeles International in California: In late July, the TSA will implement the program in coordination with United Airlines.
  • George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Texas: The program will begin in late August with Continental Airlines.
  • Boston's Logan International Airport in Massachusetts: The program begins by the end of August with American Airlines.
  • Reagan Washington National Airport: The program begins by the end of August with American Airlines.
  • Industry analysts question program

    Some travel industry analysts said they doubt the benefits of the program will generate much interest by travelers.

    "Security lines are nowhere near the issue they were in the months after 9/11, so I'm not sure how much demand there will be for such a product," said Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition.

    Mitchell also questioned assertions that the program will increase security, saying that even if it's popular, it will separate a small percentage of the people from the large stream of air travelers.

    Mitchell said he believes the program may be a face-saving way for the TSA and Congress to kill the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II program, which calls for the department to screen all passengers against government and commercial databases in an effort to determine who should face the closest scrutiny. Groups raising privacy concerns have attacked that plan.

    The TSA on Wednesday signed a $2.47 million contract with Unisys Corp. of Reston, Virginia, to manage the Registered Traveler program in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Houston. It signed a $1.31 million contract with EDS of Herndon, Virginia, to manage the program for the airports in Boston and Washington.

    Hatfield noted the program will provide a practical test of biometric ID cards that may have applications elsewhere, including for airport workers and flight crews.

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