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 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."

In Memphis, Cox said, the issue of designated security lines for Registered Travelers merits little attention because security lines overall are short.

And in smaller airports, like Memphis, assigning one security line to registered travelers lengthens the time other travelers have to spend in line.

"We made it very clear that it cannot be used to cause disadvantage to the average Joe," said Sari Koshetz, TSA spokeswoman. "We also made it clear that we will not allow a reduction in security."

The airlines themselves have resisted Registered Traveler for several reasons. The one they don't like to talk about is the bad blood between them and TSA. The airlines have traditionally felt the agency was indifferent to their struggles, particularly searches that make people feel that driving may be easier.

The hard feelings turned into policy when the airlines were forced to pay for security measures they felt should have been part of securing the homeland, not just protecting aviation.

The other is that the airlines are reluctant to give up the goodwill they receive from their elite boarding, which many passengers consider a perk.

"Then along comes the Registered Traveler program, which looks exactly like what they are already providing their best customers. Do you think they are going to want to give that relationship to a Registered Travel vendor? " Mitchell asks.

Mitchell says airlines are making a mistake by not being involved and are relating all their influence to the other players.

"If we lose even five minutes in the process, people opt for the car, or not to travel or take the train," he said. "That hurts airlines and airports because of the profitability of the business traveler."

Northwest says it would rather see TSA focused on handling the security needs of the one-third additional passengers the Federal Aviation Administration predicts will by flying in the United States by 2015.

Mitchell says an efficient, well-marketed Registered Traveler program would reduce wait times for everyone.

"In order for that to happen, you have to a very broad marketing appeal. You can't say you can have any color you want as long as it's black. You have to have different benefits and different price points to appeal to as large a segment as you can."

In a survey of 2,400 travelers published July 30, 82 percent of respondents polled by the Business Travel Coalition said they wish their preferred carrier would embrace Registered Traveler .

Thirty-eight percent said they would be "Extremely" or "Very Interested" in paying $199 if it meant extra benefits, including checking luggage through a hotel concierge desk.

The survey was commissioned by FLO, a security vendor in the Registered Traveler program.

"Three hotels in Boston are piloting the program right now," said Mitchell, a consultant to FLO.

"You bring your bags to the desk and leave them when you check out. TSA scans them in the hotel. Then they go on a secure truck to the airport.

"It means you're not schlepping bags in cabs all day because TSA has control of the bag."

Other benefits could include discounts on airport food, rental cars and limousines.

"It's a limited number of airlines that have financial wherewithal or management time to even look at this. But an unimaginable number of entrepreneurs," Mitchell said, "are ready to innovate."

-Jane Roberts: 529-2512