Mark Senak was one of the first Washington area travelers to sign up for an experimental security program last year at Reagan National Airport that promised the ultimate airport perk: no waiting in line at the security checkpoint. Senak was among 2,000 American Airlines frequent fliers invited to join the "registered traveler" test program in exchange for submitting to digital fingerprinting, an iris scan and a background check.
But the program -- in its fifth month at National and one of the most popular ideas initiated by the Transportation Security Administration -- has been of little value to him.
So far, only five airports participate, with just one airline at each location, for a total membership of 9,000 travelers. This month, the agency plans to expand the program to one more airport -- Orlando International. TSA officials would not say how many new travelers would be able to join this year, or when. With only a few airlines and airports participating, travelers often can use the high-tech kiosks only for one leg of a trip.
The wide expansion envisioned when the program was proposed in 2002 has been slow in coming as the Department of Homeland Security has had difficulty resolving policy questions and technological hurdles.
"I'd recommend registered traveler [to others] if it were broader and seemingly more reliable," said Senak, noting that one of the three times he tried to use the machine that reads fingerprints and iris scans of registered travelers, it was broken.
For now, the TSA has a modest goal: upgrading the technology at the five airports already testing the program so each location can communicate with the others. That would mean that registered travelers flying through National, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles or Houston would be cleared through security at all those airports.
"One of the key objectives we have in '05 is to establish interoperability," said Justin Oberman, the assistant administrator of the TSA's transportation vetting and credentialing.
Airport and airline groups, which support the registered traveler program and are eager for the TSA to move ahead, said they would like the agency to act quickly to develop technological standards. Airports would like the system to work like EZ Pass systems, which allow drivers to bypass long toll lines with a special card. The EZ Pass systems are operated by state agencies in partnership with companies that provide the technology, a model that the airports would like to emulate. DHS has estimated that passengers would pay $50 to $100 a year to become a registered traveler.
"Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later," said Christopher R. Bidwell, managing director of security at the Air Transport Association, the airline lobbying organization. The program's small size "is a big limitation. Clearly if we looked at any sort of privatized program where our passengers would make an investment up to $50 annually, they're going to want to reap the full benefit, which is to use any participating airport."
The program's lack of momentum stems partly from its large ambitions. Some officials initially had talked about integrating the registered traveler program into the other high-tech travel programs of the Department of Homeland Security that require visitors to submit digital fingerprints, photographs and other personal information. Those include a program that incorporates facial recognition systems into passports and another that collects digital fingerprints and photographs of foreign visitors. But airline industry sources said those plans are unclear as a new department secretary is set to take over, possibly bringing with him new ideas.