San Jose Airport Mulls Frequent-Flier Fast Pass

Airport security lines -- those often long and annoying logjams of anxious travelers -- may soon disappear for some fliers departing from Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Airport officials Wednesday announced an agreement with Verified Identity Pass to design and manage a registered traveler program for fliers who pass a background check and pay an annual fee -- sort of a FasTrak for fliers.

Travelers who are cleared for the service won't have to wait in long lines, but they'll still have to submit to such other annoyances as removing their shoes and taking laptops out of their carry-on bags -- at least for now.

Airport spokesman Rich Dressler said the system could begin operating by the end of April if it receives quick approval from the Transportation Security Administration. Only Orlando International Airport is using a registered traveler program, although it's still part of a sub-pilot program being evaluated by the TSA.

"This program is cutting-edge innovation," Dressler said. "We're here in the heart of Silicon Valley, so it looked like a great high-tech solution to customer service and processing people through checkpoints more efficiently."

Dressler said it is possible that travelers could begin registering online by the end of February. The annual fee will be $79.95.

The primary benefit to travelers is that they will be allowed to go through their own, dedicated security checkpoint, similar to the FasTrak system used on Bay Area bridges. Studies at Orlando have shown that fliers can pass through security in about 14 seconds when they arrive at the checkpoint. By comparison, the wait to get through the security checkpoint at San Jose's Terminal A on a Friday at 8 a.m. averages 15 minutes, 17 seconds, according to the TSA. Also, passengers will be exempt from random screenings that can sometimes delay the security process.

TSA director Kip Hawley told a House Homeland Security subcommittee in November that one benefit may be that travelers in the program eventually will not have to remove their shoes and coats and take laptops out of carry-on bags for X-ray screening.

The TSA expects to begin rolling out a nationwide registered traveler program in June, spokesman Nico Melendez said, although airports have not been determined. A pilot program at airports in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Minneapolis and Washington D.C. ended in September, and Melendez said the TSA is still evaluating data from that study.

But Orlando, which launched its program in July, appears to be a success. More than 10,000 fliers have signed up for the service, called ''Clear,'' by Verified Identity Pass. (Information is available at www.flyclear.com). Hawley said a survey of fliers in the program showed that 98 percent wanted it continued.

To join, travelers must complete an online application (registration kiosks will be available at the airport by March), provide biometric data such as fingerprints and iris images and pass a security check by the TSA. At the airport, security personnel will compare information stored on the passenger's membership card, called a Clear Card, with their fingerprint and iris image.

''No system is foolproof,'' said Steven Brill, chief executive of Verified Identity Pass and also the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV. ''But the part of this that is foolproof is the biometric match. It's one thing to say you've been screened and have a card, but the issue is, could someone use your card? This takes that part of the risk out of it.''

Brill said his company has begun negotiations with officials at Sacramento International Airport to start the program.

Other companies, such as Electronic Data Systems and Unisys, are also hoping to provide registered traveler programs to airports, but Brill said he doesn't foresee compatibility problems with different systems. He compared it to banks accepting ATM cards from their competitors.

Brill said he will offer discounts on the annual fee to corporate clients and hopes to bring mobile kiosks to Bay Area companies so that employees can sign up at their offices rather than at the airport.

Alfred Gilbert, president of the Silicon Valley Business Travel Association, said he thinks business fliers will endorse the program in the Bay Area.

''My only question is whether corporations will pay the $80,'' he said. ''But I travel at least once a month. I'd pay it.

''People spend a lot more than that on airport lounges.''

San Jose Mercury News


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