updated 7/7/2004 5:25:55 PM ET 2004-07-07T21:25:55

Select airline passengers breezed through security Wednesday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the start of an experiment to ease delays and make flying a little more agreeable.

Under the program, frequent business fliers will not be subject to random searches if they pass background checks in advance and do not set off any alarms while moving through security.

Minneapolis-St. Paul is the first of five U.S. airports to take part in the program, which could be made permanent. Airports in Boston, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington are scheduled to adopt the practice over the next two months.

By midmorning, about 50 Northwest Airlines passengers used the special express lane that the Transportation Security Administration hopes will reduce wait times for frequent fliers while allowing screeners to focus their attention elsewhere.

“If we can ease the congestion at the busy checkpoints just a little bit, that’s a good reason to have the registered traveler program,” said Carol DiBasttiste, chief of staff for the TSA.

Over the past two weeks, about 2,400 frequent business travelers have signed up, providing scans of irises and fingerprints and extensive personal information. That information was cross-checked against several criminal- and terror-related databases.

DiBasttiste said the overwhelming majority of those who applied were admitted into the program. She would not comment on those who failed.

One minute and it’s over
On Wednesday, some of those registered travelers were moving through the lone express lane at the airport’s six security checkpoints. It took about a minute for registered travelers to get through security and about five minutes for everyone else.

The registered travelers presented their boarding passes to an agent who asked them to put their left index fingers on a scanner. After about three seconds, a computer screen read: “Success. You may proceed.”

The registered travelers still had to go through a metal detector and their carry-on bags had to go through an X-ray machine. However, they were not subject to random searches once they passed that point.

Twin Cities businessman Bert Harman said that he had written two letters to Congress asking for something like the program and that he was happy when he got it. There was no line when he went through security.

“It was simple, so far. Hopefully it stays that way,” he said.

Gary Fishman, senior vice president for Northwest, said he hoped the program would encourage business travelers to fly rather than drive. Airlines lost many customers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the security restrictions that followed.

Justin Oberman, a TSA official in charge of the program, said the system had adequate safeguards.

“If you are able to beat the background check, you still have to go through security,” he said. “You’re going to have to get through the metal detector.”

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