Cost May Kill Registered Traveler Program

WASHINGTON -- A government proposal that would force air travelers to pay up to $200 a year for a fast pass through airport security could kill the program, advocates and lawmakers said Wednesday.

That price -- double what was expected -- would "severely threaten" the long-delayed Registered Traveler program, said Steven Brill, a Manhattan entrepreneur planning to launch the idea at four airports this year.

Eagerly awaited by travelers and recently touted by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Registered Traveler offers fee-paying fliers expedited airport screening. Travelers in the program would have to pass a background check to rule out ties to terrorism and would get an ID card to speed them through checkpoints.

The Transportation Security Administration said last year that it expected to charge about $30 for a terrorism check. Now it wants to charge another $70 to pay for TSA screeners at Registered Traveler checkpoints, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. It also may charge an additional $20 for a criminal background check. Those costs are in addition to yearly fees of up to $80 that fliers would pay to companies operating the program.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., whose committee oversees Registered Traveler, said $200 "far exceeds anything that's ever been entertained. ...You don't know if it's going to succeed now."

Larry Zmuda, head of homeland security for Pennsylvania-based Unisys, which also wants to run Registered Traveler, said the heftier price tag "would be a huge blow." It could deter millions from signing up and make Registered Traveler unprofitable at some airports, he said.

The program would operate only at airports that choose to apply and are approved by TSA. About 20 have applied so far.

The TSA says it wants to avoid spending taxpayer dollars on Registered Traveler. "It's a private-sector program, and it's designed to have Registered Traveler customers pay for use of the lane," said Howe, the TSA spokeswoman.

The agency revealed the $100 fee on its website Monday with no publicity. The fee is based on "preliminary calculations" that could change later, the TSA says.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of a subcommittee overseeing TSA, said the agency "is certainly going to have to justify that ($100) to me."

Registered Traveler advocates are lobbying the TSA against the $70 charge for screeners. Brill, the Manhattan businessman, said the TSA doesn't have to hire extra screeners to run Registered Traveler checkpoints.

Brill's company, Verified Identity Pass Inc., has said that charging more than $80 creates "significant barriers" to getting enough people to join and make the program a national success.

Thompson, the congressman, said a $200 fee might deter travelers who already get shorter security lines through elite flier clubs.

For some travelers, the higher fee was getting too pricey.

Cleveland businessman Mark Taft said $200 is "on the outer edge of what I would pay."