Speedy Check-In Still Faces Hurdles: Air Industry Fearing Higher Costs

Mar. 5--WASHINGTON -- Just months before the launch of a program aimed at speeding some travelers through airport security checkpoints, the airline industry is growing dubious about the effort.

The industry's lobbying group says the Registered Traveler program may generate business for security vendors but won't necessarily satisfy passengers.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where security wait times have vastly improved without the new system in place, officials are also skeptical.

And passengers remain leery about the prospect of releasing iris scans, fingerprints or other personal information in exchange for the promise of convenience.

"I like to protect all of my personal information," said Camille Sparkman, who was recently headed to Denver from D/FW. "Where does it go? Where is it housed? Who's monitoring it?"

The Registered Traveler program, conceived as passengers grew frustrated with security measures after 9/11, is scheduled to launch nationwide in June after more than four years of planning.

For a fee of $80 to $100 a year, travelers would register with a private firm and undergo a background check by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

Once approved, passengers could enter an express security lane or skip to the front of a line, identified by their biometric information.

Proponents say it could reduce a 30-minute peak wait time to three minutes, as it has at Florida's Orlando International Airport, the only U.S. airport where the program currently operates.

More than 15,000 passengers have enrolled in the program, which processes 10 percent of daily passengers despite using just 6 percent of the lanes, said Steven Brill, chief executive of Verified Identity Pass Inc., which is leading the race to register travelers.

The company says it hopes to offer additional equipment that could eliminate the need to remove shoes and coats or take laptop computers out of their bags. General Electric Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have signed up as partners to help Verified Identity roll out the program.

"This is going to be an evolving process depending on how the technology evolves and how TSA gets comfortable with the process," said Mr. Brill, the entrepreneur who launched Court TV and the American Lawyer publications.

Getting ahead in line is the only upside approved so far by the TSA.

"We're still going to have to see what the benefits will look like based on what kind of programs come back from private industry," said Andrea McCauley, a TSA spokeswoman. "We do have high goals for the industry."

Going private

The TSA ran a small program at five airports to test the concept. But private firms now would be responsible for running any program, with oversight by the agency's staff. Airlines or airports would have to pay for additional security costs the program creates, Ms. McCauley said.

Some airport and airline industry officials say they're worried that they could get stuck with a big tab.

The airlines have been fighting efforts to raise security fees that would fund the TSA and other government-run programs. Responsibility for choosing vendors would rest with airports, which traditionally have not been directly responsible for air security.

It would be a new role for D/FW, one that has left officials there with countless questions about what they could be getting into.

"We have yet to see any data or any proposal that would show objectively that they can provide what the customer is asking for, and provide this service at a cost that this service can sustain," said Jim Crites, D/FW's executive vice president of operations.

Cost vs. benefit

The Air Transport Association, the airline lobbying group, wants the program suspended, saying it "would appear to serve more as a revenue-generating scheme than a security program that would benefit passengers."

The group originally supported the Registered Traveler concept after 9/11 when passengers were subjected to numerous screenings at checkpoints and at gates.

Since then, the TSA and airports have done a "remarkable job" improving wait times and eliminating other hassles, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the organization.

The industry wants the resources directed instead to Secure Flight, a government program to check passengers' names against watch lists. That effort has been mired in delays and questions about privacy.

The airlines aren't entirely opposed to the Registered Traveler concept.

American Airlines Inc. supports an optional program as long as it does not sacrifice overall security. The airline already offers dedicated lanes for first-class passengers and other premium members at certain airports.

"We think our most frequent travelers would appreciate an expedited security process to make their airport experience a little better," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based carrier.

Frequent travelers often say that they wouldn't mind the added cost, but sharing personal information in yet another database is a key concern.

"If it was just used for the airport, it'd be great," said John White, a passenger on American who was recently passing through D/FW from Minneapolis.

Ms. Sparkman, the Denver-bound passenger, said the idea reminds her of the film Minority Report, in which people are identified by their biometric data.

"The eye scan and fingerprints -- that's a little personal," she said.

Passenger concerns

Mr. Brill said focus group participants shared similar concerns until they heard the company would have less information on a user than a credit card company keeps on its customers.

The concerns led the company to craft a strict privacy policy and offer a guarantee to customers who can prove identity theft as a result of the program. No data would be sold or linked to other membership programs.

Mr. Brill envisioned the business plan while writing a book about the aftermath of 9/11. Registered Traveler could be the beginning of a "voluntary credentialing" industry that would operate at offices, stadiums and other venues that demand security.

D/FW is one of the few airports that aren't warmly embracing the program, Mr. Brill said, because the airport's sprawling design means it has numerous security checkpoints spread across five terminals. But he said he has a plan for D/FW that would get travelers to their gates at least as fast as they can now.

"We could mount a solid program at D/FW that would not cost the airport a penny," Mr. Brill said, "and would actually speed all of their passengers more quickly" by removing travelers from slower regular lanes.

But Mr. Crites of D/FW said any benefits could be diminished if the program proves too popular. During certain peak periods, such as Monday mornings, a quarter to a half of all travelers could be businesspeople, he said.

Even if airports had the space for more lanes, they don't want to get stuck paying for them.

"Once you start providing a level of service for somebody, they don't like the idea of that being taken away," Mr. Crites said. "What happens if the expenses that are associated with Registered Traveler cannot be borne by the Registered Traveler customers?"

D/FW's own program

Last year, D/FW completed a $1 million effort -- funded by the airport -- to improve speed at security checkpoints. The airport now provides additional tables for double-entry lanes, disposable slippers for passengers' feet and bags for their personal items.

The result: D/FW cleared passengers through security checkpoints faster than the Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare and Phoenix airports, according to a TSA calculation during the holiday season. Orlando took as long as 36 minutes during peak periods, compared with D/FW's average wait of 12 minutes, an airport spokesman said.

Much of the talk about the Registered Traveler program "seems to lack substance," Mr. Crites said.

Key points -- such as how registered traveler programs from different vendors would work across airports -- are still being resolved. A program at D/FW, if it happened, would be at least six months away, he said.

If it could speed security processing as promised, Mr. Crites said, "Sign me up."

E-mail sreddy@dallasnews.com