E-ZPass for airport lines? Pilot program is taking off



Travelers who voluntarily undergo a background check and pay an annual fee will be allowed to move through airport security checkpoints much faster under a new government program starting next year.

Kip Hawley, head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, announced recently that he expects the program to be fully operational in June.

The TSA will oversee the program and check participants against terrorist and criminal databases, but private companies hired by individual airports will recruit the travelers, gather their personal information, and verify identities at security checkpoints.

Thomas Kinton, director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan International Airport, said the agency is considering partnering with airports in New York, Washington and Philadelphia on a pilot program.

"We're ready. Airports are ready," Kinton said.

The so-called Registered Traveler program is an attempt to prescreen the nation's most frequent fliers so the TSA can focus more on those passengers likely to be security threats. Officials like to say that if you are hunting for a needle in a haystack, it helps to make the haystack as small as possible.

Government and corporate officials say they expect 7 million to 10 million travelers to sign up for the program eventually. At Orlando International Airport, which has the only privately run pilot program, about 10,000 people have signed up over the last three months, each paying an $80 annual fee.

Participants provide personal identifying information as well as iris scans and fingerprints. If they pass the federal background check, they are given access to a dedicated security lane with no random secondary screenings.

According to Steven Brill, chief executive of Verified Identity Inc., the company running the Orlando pilot with Lockheed Martin, no participant has had to wait longer than three minutes to go through security.

In testimony before Congress recently, Brill said the $80 Orlando fee is "at the low end of what our research said frequent fliers might pay." In an interview, he said Logan, with security checkpoints at several terminals rather than one central location, would be more costly to serve. Airports are likely to receive a portion of the fees raised by the program, Brill said.

Officials at Electronic Data Systems, Unisys, Verified Identity and other companies have begun discussing how to make their identity verification systems compatible with each other. Brill said the companies will have to work out a system for compensating each other when a traveler who signed up with one firm has his identity verified by another.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the government needs to address the many inaccuracies on its terrorist watch lists. He also said he is concerned about private companies gathering so much data on travelers and to some degree tracking where they go.

And what about those people who travel but don't travel enough to justify spending $80 or more to speed through security faster? Those occasional travelers will be stuck in long lines watching as the elite travelers whisk by.

Brill says not to worry. He said the Registered Traveler program will operate much like the E-ZPass systems used on toll roads and bridges. With those programs, he said, the heavy use of E-ZPass lanes means that the other lanes end up less congested.

Bruce Mohl writes for the Boston Globe.

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