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'Registered' Status Speeds Security Checks for Frequent Travelers - 2004-08-01

If you've been through an American airport in the past couple of years, you likely stood in line for a long time waiting on security checks. You have to show drivers' licenses, go through metal detectors, perhaps even have your luggage searched by hand. It's a slow and often frustrating process, especially for people who have to fly often.

Now, the U.S. government's Transportation Security Administration is testing a program designed to more quickly move some people through security screening. The so-called "registered traveler," program verifies identities through electronic iris and fingerprint scans. Frequent flyers at two different airports are currently participating in this pilot project. Mark Zdechlik has details from one of those airports, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

Minneapolis businessman Pat Bassett is one of the first Transportation Security Administration "registered travelers". He agreed to allow the TSA to check out his background and take electronic scans of his fingerprints and irises, and now Bassett no longer has to wait in line with everyone else.

As a "registered traveler," he can breeze through an exclusive security checkpoint, while regular travelers look on waiting in line. Bassett doesn't even have to pull out his driver's license; a computer verifies he's the person named on the ticket.

Bassett still has to go through a metal detector, and his carry-on luggage has to be electronically scanned. But in addition to having his own line, he won't ever be selected for the type of random search other travelers are subject to. "I think this is pretty slick," he says. "It makes travel a lot easier."

Over the next six months, the TSA will test its "registered traveler" program with 10,000 volunteers at five airports around the United States.

The agency's director of credentialing, Justin Oberman, says the program will be considered successful if it improves customer service without jeopardizing security, and demonstrates that biometrics - electronic fingerprints and iris scans to verify identity - can be done on a large-scale.

"The technology appears to be working extremely well. I think our intention is if this continues to be as successful as it has been to date that we would want to absolutely extend it and keep it going," says Mr. Oberman.

Northwest Airlines is the first airline to work with the TSA on the "registered traveler" program. It has been calling for such an approach since shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Northwest senior vice president Gary Fishman says pre-screening some travelers and guaranteeing a way to positively identify them allows officials to spend more time on the unknown.

"Why subject all customers to the same level of scrutiny when there are certain people that, myself for example, you know a lot about and is a much lower level of risk than somebody who's just walked through the terminal and you know nothing about," says Mr. Fishman.

But some people are questioning the special treatment afforded registered travelers. Barbara Dvorak, standing in the regular security line at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport, was on her way to Florida. She doesn't buy the TSA's argument that checking a traveler's background improves security, and she doesn't like the program. "I just think everybody should be treated the same," she says. "I don't think anybody's time is more important than anybody else's."

Businessman and "registered traveler" Pat Bassett says he's used the special checkpoint several times, and he's hoping it'll become a permanent option. He says it's made travel less time consuming and less stressful.

"Time is money," says Mr. Basset. "The less time you have to wait, the more time you're productive, whether it's on the phone or whether it's through other means to get business done. So, yes, I would think that that will help businessmen come back [to the airlines] if they know that there's less time waiting in line."

The "registered traveler program" is being tested right now at both the Minneapolis St. Paul airport and Los Angeles airport. The Transportation Security Administration will soon introduce it in Houston, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. Congress allocated$5 million for the six-month pilot program.

If it does become permanent, as initial indications suggest, figuring out who should pay for the program - the federal government, the airlines, or travelers - may prove more difficult than attracting more volunteers and using high-tech biometrics to verify their identities.