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

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 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.

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