Travelers who fly regularly out of five major U.S. airports including Reagan National will be able to apply for a quick pass through security lines this summer in an experimental program announced yesterday by the Transportation Security Administration.
In return for being able to use a special security lane, avoiding the slower standard checkpoints, travelers will have to provide the agency with their name, address, phone number, date of birth, digital fingerprint and iris scan.
The so-called registered traveler program aims to identify passengers who pose less of a security threat to airlines and to move them swiftly through security. With those travelers out of the way, the TSA said security screeners can focus on other travelers who might pose more of a risk.
The experimental program will be offered in mid-August jointly by the TSA and American Airlines to an estimated 3,000 members of American's frequent flier program who travel at least once a week out of National. American will also offer the program at Boston's Logan International Airport.
Northwest, United and Continental airlines will begin offering the program in July and August at airports in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Houston. The TSA plans to evaluate the program after 90 days and decide whether to expand it nationwide for all travelers, not just frequent fliers.
The program's debut is a reversal for the agency created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The TSA's first leader, John W. Magaw, said he opposed the creation of the program, then called trusted traveler, for fear that terrorists could join and become a "trusted" part of the system to take advantage of the limited screening.
Yesterday, TSA's acting administrator, David M. Stone, said the program would still check every passenger and his or her belongings with an X-ray machine and metal detector. "TSA approached this pilot with the firm idea that security could not and would not be compromised," Stone said in a written statement yesterday.
Travelers will likely be invited to join the experimental program through an e-mail from their airline. They will be asked to visit an enrollment station at the airport, where they will provide their personal information.
Using the data, the TSA will perform a background check. Approved registered travelers will be able to skip the more thorough pat-down searches that are sometimes conducted randomly or are triggered by a computer designation. If the registered traveler sets off the alarm, however, the passenger must undergo the more extensive check with a hand-held metal detector, the TSA said.
Department of Homeland Security officials said that if the program is expanded, travelers may have to pay less than $100 a year to be registered, though participants in the pilot will join for free. The fee would cover the expense of the required background check.
Travelers yesterday were skeptical about whether the program would work. "It's hard for the average traveler to make an assessment whether it's worth their time to go through this process," said frequent flier David Beatty of Ashburn. "I'm not quite sure what I get to bypass. If my shoes rang, I'd still have to take my shoes off." Beatty also expressed some concern about the government's collection of his travel information.
Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said the program might actually create longer lines at some airports, such as National, which are heavily used by business travelers. "What good is it going to do you at 5:30 p.m. at Reagan National airport?" Mitchell asked.
The TSA said it will kick off the test project in early July with Northwest Airlines frequent fliers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In late July, United Airlines will begin the program with its customers at Los Angeles International Airport. In early August, Continental Airlines will offer its customers the program out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.
Unisys Corp. of Reston won a $2.47 million contract to manage and operate the test program in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Houston. The agency awarded Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Herndon $1.31 million for 180 days to manage the program in Boston and Washington.