No need for speed; Airport has no plans for fast security checks

Memphis International Airport has no plans to offer fast-track security checks for people willing to pay $100 a year and submit to background checks. The reason, quite simply, is that Northwest Airlines doesn't believe the Registered Traveler perk...


Memphis International Airport has no plans to offer fast-track security checks for people willing to pay $100 a year and submit to background checks.

The reason, quite simply, is that Northwest Airlines doesn't believe the Registered Traveler perk presents - well - enough of a perk.

"They see it as just swapping out one line for another," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. "If Northwest tells us they want it, we will make it happen."

That doesn't make sense at Little Rock International Airport, which Thursday will be the first airport in the South (outside Orlando) to offer a version of Registered Traveler.

"You put your card in the kiosk, and it will read your iris scan," said James Falls, program manager Clear Registered Travel in Little Rock, which started enrolling passengers last week. "Then a person will take you to the front of the security line."

It charges $199.95 for a two-year membership.

"We've had a lot of people sign up," said Falls, who wasn't allowed to say how many people have registered. "Some are businesspeople and some are frequent flyers who travel all the time."

Northwest and the other airlines say they are getting the same results by offering separate security lines for elite travelers, which have allowed them to appease their best customers without offending the rest.

Advocates of Registered Traveler say the airlines' solution is elitist because it rewards only people wealthy enough to fly often or first class.

"For $100, anyone can get preferential treatment through Registered Traveler, whether you travel 100 times a year or three times," Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told members of the Mid South Business Travel Association last week. "Airports can't justify simply having an elite lane for one airline. What they are ignoring is the fact that they have a basin of business travelers for whom life is more than just Memphis."

The Registered Traveler program was created after 9/11 as a way to shorten security lines and conserve TSA resources by separating known travelers into lines with less stringent security.

"The original concept was to improve security by targeting resources," said Dick Marchi, senior policy analyst at Airports Council International-North America. "The idea was you could learn a lot from passengers who would volunteer information about themselves, and we would be able to get more effective use of our security resources.

"That really hasn't happened because we didn't reduce the scrutiny of registered travelers. They go through all the same stuff any other passenger does. Instead, what it has become is a way to pay for premium treatment."

While Registered Traveler has gone through several permutations, the one that exists today was born in February 2006 when TSA told entrepreneurs, airlines and airports it would give them wide latitude to design a program as long as it protected the traveling public as a whole.

Ten airports - including JFK in New York, Orlando International and Reno-Tahoe International - offer Registered Traveler programs. Another nine, including Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta and Denver International, are seeking proposals or have hired private vendors to work the process, which starts with biometric scans of the eye or finger to prove identity.

Five vendors, including General Electric, have been approved, and five more are seeking approval.

Mitchell, a cadre of private vendors providing security technology and 39,000 registered travelers are pushing more airports to come aboard, saying that without critical mass, the program offers little benefit.

"The problem out there that needs to be solved is that you can spend an hour in line at one airport and 10 minutes in another, and you can't ever know," Mitchell said. "Then there's the stress factor. If you're not at the gate in time, they can give your seat away."

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