Express Lanes, Iris Scans Offer Faster Airport Security

Phil Thomas longs for a quicker trip through airport security lines.

The suburban Detroit resident, who manages a medical supply company, has flown 35 times in the last three months. He expects to log 75,000 air miles this year.

Although Thomas moved swiftly through the lines at Kansas City International Airport, he has found most other airports more difficult.

"I've stood 40 minutes in line at Detroit," he said. "The lines are too doggone long, especially at holidays when there are many leisure travelers."

The federal government has been looking at ways to get frequent fliers like Thomas through the airports faster, especially amid complaints that post-Sept. 11 security is a time-consuming hassle.

One idea, tested at six airports, is an express lane for passengers willing to undergo background checks, fingerprinting and iris scans.

The Transportation Security Administration is still examining the results of the test program. No decisions have been made about its future. But if it does go nationwide, don't expect to see any express lanes at KCI, where security checkpoints are plentiful and waiting times are short.

"This only works with large airports with very few checkpoints," said Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh. "No other airport is even remotely similar to ours."

The TSA recently wrapped up a $20 million test program of express lanes at five airports. A sixth pilot program is still under way in Orlando, Fla.

If it is adopted nationwide, the program could offer new convenience for fliers willing to lay out some cash, provide a fingerprint, an iris scan, their Social Security number and other biographical data.

Fliers are given a card imbedded with their personal information that essentially allows them to go to the head of the security line. They put the card in a kiosk at the checkpoint, where they also place their finger on a pad or look into a viewer to have their identity verified.

Passengers still must walk through metal detectors. Their carry-on bags are still checked. But they are allowed to bypass the secondary pat-down search if they don't set off an alarm.

The TSA is examining the results of the so-called Registered Traveler pilot program in which 10,000 fliers volunteered at airports in Boston, Washington, Houston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Airlines selected the fliers.

Another 10,000 passengers signed up for the Orlando test, which hired a private vendor to administer the program. Unlike at the other test sites, passengers in Orlando had to pay $80 to enroll.

A report released this week by Orlando's vendor showed that during the program's first three months, the average time spent waiting to reach the security checkpoint was 14 seconds for those who had received advance clearance, compared with about four minutes in the other line. The longest wait time in the express line was three minutes, compared to about 32 minutes in the other lines.

"The program has received very good response," said Carolyn Fennell, spokeswoman for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "It does give the frequent traveler the ability to plan better."

The TSA has made no commitments about expanding the program, but Congress already has authorized the agency to charge passengers who might want to participate.

Kip Hawley, TSA director, is to appear before Congress today to discuss the program's future.

A subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee plans to look at the effectiveness of the pilot program and the likelihood of it being expanded.

Meanwhile, about 50 to 60 airports across the country, including Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, have banded together to encourage the TSA to take the program national. They are cooperating to make the program uniform so passengers could use the express lines regardless of airport.

"The folks that were in the pilot programs felt it was a very positive experience. It worked well. Customers liked it," said Colleen Chamberlain, director of transportation security policy for the American Association of Airport Executives.

TSA has "pretty limited resources," Chamberlain said. "This really helps you focus on the people or things that could be a threat because you're weeding out the folks who are willing to submit to a background check."

Chamberlain's organization is coordinating the efforts of airports to take the program national. But absent from that group is KCI.

"It's a great program and business travelers will applaud it loudly," said VanLoh, Kansas City aviation director. "But it is not needed at KCI."

Wait times at the KCI security screening checkpoints average only about six minutes during peak hours and three minutes at less-congested times. VanLoh said he expected even shorter waits once the restrooms were added to passenger waiting areas and passengers were not going through security multiple times.

VanLoh said that adding VIP security lanes at KCI would be costly because there are 11 security checkpoints.

By comparison, Orlando has two checkpoints, while St. Louis has four.

"We're very much interested in improving the customer-processing times in the TSA checkpoints," said Gerard Slay, deputy airport director at Lambert-St. Louis.

"We feel that it would be a big benefit for frequent travelers and business people who might be interested in paying for the card and the background check," he said.

If KCI does not implement the program, it could mean that area fliers would not be able to enroll in the program at the airport, Chamberlain said. But they could sign up at other participating airports and use the express lines in those cities, she said.

"If they are true road warriors and wanted to try to get the benefit at their destination airport, I think there would be opportunities to sign up," she said.

It is also possible that the companies selected to provide the service could go to private businesses to sign up frequent fliers. For example, mobile enrollment stations were set at some Orlando banks. But Chamberlain added that many details must be worked out before the program expanded.

A nationwide program - if it becomes optional - has strong support from organizations representing airline passengers.

"There are plenty of members of who feel strongly about their civil liberties and would never want to be a part of this program," said Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Travel Association, a trade organization for more than 2,500 corporate and government travel planners.

"However, I probably have more people who would give samples of DNA and locks of their hair to save a few minutes going through the line."

The Air Transport Association, which lobbies for the airlines, needs more information before assessing how much the program would benefit passengers.

"It's got great potential, but until TSA identifies the security benefits to a passenger, it might be a difficult way to go," said Victoria Day, association spokesman.

"If you're a registered traveler do you need to remove your coat? Do you still need to remove your laptop? Do you still need to remove your shoes?"

The National Business Travelers Association sees airport security as a productivity issue. It is something that Michael Corbett, a forensic toxicologist from Toronto, can relate to.

"You never know what you are going to face at an airport, so you have to arrive hours in advance," he said. "As a business traveler, you want to optimize your time."

Kansas City Star

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