BWI Eyes a Fast Lane for security

For business traveler Bill Crowell, security checkpoint wait times at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport are usually a mixed bag.

A defense contractor employee who passes through the airport about 15 times a year, Mr. Crowell sometimes breezes through security. Other times, he's stuck in a line for 25 minutes.

That wait time would be a bit more predictable if BWI installs an express security checkpoint lane dedicated to business travelers like Mr. Crowell and other frequent fliers. Airport officials are exploring the installment of the federally managed Registered Traveler program, which allows travelers to pass through separate express lanes for a fee - the one in Orlando is $79.95 for a year - while still going through high levels of security.

Transportation Security Administration will implement the program at 10 to 20 airports by the end of the year. It will work in conjunction with private companies to launch and operate the program.

Airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said BWI is "considering" the program because it would provide an added convenience for frequent fliers, but nothing has been finalized.

"The airport is continuing to evaluate the program," he said. "The airport would need to determine what infrastructure changes would be needed. It's a little early to say much."

Here's how the program would work: TSA would conduct background checks for program members. Fees for the background checks will be collected by a private contractor.

Passengers will be tested for their true identity with fingerprints and/or an eye scan before passing through the express checkpoint line. Travelers are still required to pass through a metal detector, and carry-on baggage must be screened.

Mr. Kayser said members of the Registered Traveler program save time because there are generally fewer people passing through the designated lanes. He said private contractors will work with airports to determine fees for becoming a program member.

TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said the Registered Traveler program would not affect wait times at regular airport checkpoints.

"The idea here is that if you're sending passengers through more quickly at a Registered Traveler checkpoint, that you are reducing the overall clutter at the checkpoint for everyone," he said.

Mr. Kayser said TSA tested the program at five airports, including Reagan National and Logan and Los Angeles international airports from the summer of 2004 to September. During that time period, a total of 10,000 passengers participated in the Registered Traveler program at those airports.

Verified Identity Pass Inc., a private contractor for the Registered Traveler program in place at Orlando International Airport, has enrolled 20,000 members since June, company spokesman Mary Beth Hogan said. For a one-year membership of $79.95, Registered Traveler program members enjoy a maximum wait time of three minutes at the Orlando airport, she said.

George Hamlin, a private aviation consultant based in Northern Virginia, said the program would serve a need for business travelers who pass through BWI several times a month.

"If people are willing to pay for a faster lane and they can identify who they are ... this is not unreasonable," he said. "It's the cost of doing business for the business traveler but time is money also."

But Mike Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo., had a different take. He called the program a "rich man's" lane that isn't worth it because customers will encounter the same security hassles they would at a regular checkpoint lane, he said.

"They're going to screen your bag. They're going to screen you. If an alarm goes off, they pat your bag. All it's doing is giving you a lane," he said. "It's exactly the same security. It's shorter, but so what? You're paying a premium for a shorter line, not a premium for less security."

Mr. Crowell, though, said he still would be willing to give it a try.

"As a business traveler, I think I would take advantage of it," he said. "You pay first class, you like to get through the line."

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