Travelers flying out of Mineta San Jose International can now bypass the often-lengthy lines at security checkpoints if they're willing to hand over $100 and submit to a background check.
As of Tuesday, when airport officials unveiled a new high-tech registered traveler program, fliers who enlist won't have to stand in lines that can take more than half an hour. Instead they'll head to kiosks where they'll present boarding passes and registered traveler identification cards, have their fingerprints or irises scanned -- all in 2-to-5 minutes -- then head to a dedicated belt to have their carry-on luggage X-rayed.
San Jose joins Orlando International Airport, which launched a test program of the system a year and a half ago, New York's JFK and the Indianapolis International Airport, which started last week.
Soon -- perhaps within a couple of months -- registered travelers will also be able to keep on their shoes and their jackets, said officials with Clear, the company running the program, and General Electric Homeland Security, the Newark firm that developed the biometric screening devices. And before long, they predicted, members won't even have to take their laptops out of their luggage.
"Our vision is that some people will volunteer to get screened, and pay a small annual fee to get an expedited process through security,'' said Steve Brill, the former magazine publisher who founded and heads Clear. "If you fly more than twice a year, if you fly 25 times a year, you'll value that process.''
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said registered traveler programs create a way for a large number of people to evade security, and establish a government passenger ranking system that could be expanded to general use.
Brill, who said he is a longtime ACLU member, disagrees. He said that the program is voluntary and that it protects against racial profiling at security checkpoints since evaluations are done when members apply. He said he also found it unlikely potential terrorists would apply for registered traveler programs.
"Let's say you're Mohamed Atta,'' Brill said. "If you apply, you've just given the government your fingerprints.''
Brill demonstrated the Clear kiosks at Tuesday's press conference, but it could be until the beginning of next week before the first South Bay cardholders try out the system. About 2,500 people have signed up for the program at Mineta San Jose, Brill said, but because the Transportation Security Administration only recently approved the program, ID cards have not yet been mailed.
San Jose is the first West Coast airport to introduce the registered traveler program. And officials at San Francisco and Oakland international airports said they have no plans to offer the service to travelers. Mike McCarron, an SFO spokesman, said the airport's security lines are typically short -- 5 to 7 minutes on average -- and the city attorney has liability concerns. Rosemary Barnes, an Oakland airport spokeswoman, said officials want to see how the program works at other airports.
Fliers interviewed Tuesday at the San Jose Airport liked the idea of bypassing long security lines -- even if it costs $100 and a background check.
"I'd do it,'' said Jim Boyle, general manager of a steel processing plant in Indiana, as he took a cigarette break outside the terminal. "I hate going through security. I fly all the time -- all over, so I love the idea of not worrying about the time" it could take to get through security.
Bob Lussier, engineering director for a Scotts Valley technology firm, signed up for the Clear program at an airport stand on Tuesday and was eager to get his card.
"I travel 12 to 15 times a year and the security lines, especially here in San Jose, can be quite long,'' he said. "I get here now an hour, hour and a half, even two hours before my flight, depending on the day. Signing up could save me an hour. It's worth it.''
Officials at some airports, including SFO, have boasted that their brief average wait times at security checkpoints diminish or eliminate the need for a registered traveler program. Brill said the main benefit of the Clear program for travelers is not reducing the time spent in security lines but the certainty of knowing how long it will take to clear security.
About 30,000 travelers signed up for that pilot program at Orlando. And Brill, who said he is in talks with a number of airports he wouldn't identify, said he expects to announce several more throughout the year. He also expects other companies to establish competing registered traveler programs.
In other air traveler security developments, beginning Tuesday fliers returning to the U.S. from Canada and Mexico were required to present passports to enter the country. In the past, American citizens could present driver's licenses or birth certificates.
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