Registered Traveler Gathers Momentum, But Can't Consistently Speed Fliers to Gates

You may save time, but you'll still have the hassle because many features of this new program don't yet work.

HERE'S the hope: You pay nearly $100 and undergo a background check to become a Registered Traveler. Then you zip through airport security.

Here's the truth: You may save time, but you'll still have the hassle because many features of this new program don't yet work. And that raises this question: Is Registered Traveler ready for prime time?

My experience in San Jose, six days after the program made its West Coast debut on Jan. 23, suggests it's not -- at least not yet.

On my visit, special lanes for Registered Travelers were open for business. But no one was using them because the enrollees were still waiting for access cards.

Check-in kiosks to prescreen members were open too. But the shoe scanners and explosives detectors weren't activated, so members had to go through the same security process as everyone else, removing coats and shoes and taking laptops out of bags.

Karla May, a hardware engineer from Hermosa Beach, spoke for many fliers I interviewed that day in this laptop-lugging, Blackberry-tapping transit hub of the Silicon Valley.

"It doesn't sound like they have their act together," said May, who flies about twice a month on business and said she was not interested in signing up for Registered Traveler.

The much-delayed program, overseen by the Transportation Security Administration but run by private vendors, is going nationwide after 18 months of testing in Orlando, Fla. It is enrolling thousands of members -- more than 3,000 in San Jose alone as of last week -- and gaining momentum, but problems also abound. Among them:

* Card delays. In San Jose, an encryption glitch in processing applications delayed delivery of enrollees' cards, which they need to log onto the kiosks, said Steven Brill, who heads Verified Identity Pass Inc. in New York, a start-up company that runs the program in Orlando, San Jose and several other cities. (Enrollees have since begun receiving cards.)

Meanwhile, in Orlando, more than 30,000 members are being issued new cards because the old ones wouldn't work at other airports.

* Limited availability. As of last week, only airports in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York (JFK), Orlando and San Jose operated Registered Traveler; Newark, N.J., was starting enrollment. At some sites, not all terminals participate.

* Industry opposition. The Air Transport Assn., an airline trade group in Washington, D.C., that once advocated Registered Traveler, now says the program diverts limited TSA resources from more broadly focused screening efforts. The association has lobbied airports against adopting it.

LAX is among the sites that have held off implementing the program. Airport officials have cited the transport association's arguments and a lack of space for new checkpoint lanes.

* Privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union sees "substantial privacy and civil liberties problems" with Registered Traveler, said Timothy Sparapani, the group's legislative counsel for privacy rights. He said the program might rely on flawed databases to evaluate applicants.

The TSA has said it will keep the data secure and provide a system for applicants to resolve disputes over eligibility.

* Customer confusion. Most of the nine San Jose fliers I interviewed about the program had only a vague idea of what it was.

"It's not very well advertised," said Dan Spencer, who lives outside Denver and travels every six weeks as a sales representative for an electronics manufacturer.

And each Registered Traveler vendor assigns its own name to the program, adding to the obscurity. Verified Identity Pass Inc. calls it Clear (). Unisys, a technology company in Blue Bell, Pa., that plans to launch its version by mid-March at Nevada's Reno-Tahoe airport, calls it rtGO ().

Some fliers said they either quickly navigated security without special access or had adapted to the hassle.

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