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Speeding up security checks comes slowly

Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, registered traveler (RT) programs — which promise to speed participating fliers through post-9/11 airport security — are still struggling to take off, although recent launches of RT programs at major U.S. airports are slowly turning the concept into reality.
Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, registered traveler (RT) programs — which promise to speed participating fliers through post-9/11 airport security — are still struggling to take off.
Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, registered traveler (RT) programs — which promise to speed participating fliers through post-9/11 airport security — are still struggling to take off.Jack Dempsey
/ Source: Aviation.com

Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, registered traveler (RT) programs — which promise to speed participating fliers through post-9/11 airport security — are still struggling to take off, although recent launches of RT programs at major U.S. airports are slowly turning the concept into reality.

So far, only two of the five companies certified by the Transportation Security Administration to provide registered traveler services have actually implemented programs. Just 60,000 travelers have signed up at 10 participating airports. Given that some 2 million passengers pass through U.S. airports every day, the number of air travelers who have volunteered to have the required finger-printing, iris scans and background checks — and ponied up $100 to join commercial RT programs — is perishingly small.

The TSA itself seems to be in no hurry to jump-start RT. It has not picked a nationwide provider to implement RT programs, which are in any case still in the pilot stage, according to TSA public affairs manager Jennifer Marty-Peppin.

“We’re not necessarily looking for one company, we just want the programs to be inter-operable," she said. “RT is driven by the private sector. We are kind of waiting for things to develop. We want to see if it’s something the traveler wants, rather than us doing it."

RT providers issue a biometric identity card to participants, who use the card to check in at an airport kiosk and go to the head of the line for screening by TSA workers. They go through the same security check as other travelers. Holders of one company’s RT card can use it at another RT company’s kiosk.

At San Francisco International Airport, which launched a pilot RT program early this month, initial consumer demand for market leader Verified Identity Pass Inc.’s Clear program was strong. Clear enrolled 1,000 travelers at SFO in the program’s first 30 hours, according to Kandace Bender, the airport's deputy director. “They are the road warriors, the 100,000-mile business travelers," she said. “People were asking us about it. Clearly, there’s a market there."

Clear, which operates nine of the nation’s 10 airport pilot programs, won SFO’s business in competitive bidding with FLO (Fast Lane Option) Corp., said Tryg McCoy, SFO’s deputy airport director for operations and security. According to McCoy, Clear offered supporting technology in the form of a shoe scanner and pledged $528,000 a year to operate at San Francisco airport — the highest bid.

The information technology firm Unisys is the only other company to have a pilot program up and running. The Unisys program is being tested at Reno-Tahoe airport. Also certified by the TSA are Verant Identification Systems Inc. and Vigilant Solutions. Five additional firms have applied to the TSA for permission to offer RT services.

In addition to Unisys, the major potential player is FLO Corp., founded in April. FLO has forged partnerships with Microsoft Corp., JP Morgan Chase, Expedia Corporate Travel and the Business Travel Coalition, an association of corporate travel planners.

Clear, founded in 2003, and headed by high-profile entrepreneur Steven Brill, has secured post-position in the horse race to supply RT services, at least for now. Clear operated the first test site, at Orlando International Airport, where it won certification for its shoe scanner, a high-tech machine made by General Electric, which holds a $16 million stake in Clear. The machine checks passengers’ footwear for explosives. However, the device has been approved by the TSA for use in Orlando only.

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told Congress in July that the technology behind RT programs is far from fool-proof — causing industry observers to wonder whether the agency is committed to RT. Hawley has said the TSA hopes to approve a nationwide program by the end of 2008.

In the meantime, airports and airlines are pushing ahead on their own. British Airways sponsors a Clear program in Terminal 7 at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport. Virgin Atlantic Airways and Air France also sponsor Clear programs at JFK. BA spokeswoman Lisa Lam said BA believes the program offers predictability and consistency for stressed-out travelers and said Clear offered the most highly developed product.

Airlines and their trade organizations are divided on the desirability of RT.

International Air Transport Association spokesman Steve Lott said IATA supports RT programs, with caveats. “We want an RT program that changes the whole thing, rather than just lane-management that allows someone to go to the head of the line," he said.

The Air Transport Association, the U.S. airline trade organization, flatly opposes RT. “It was originally sold as a security enhancement, and it has nothing to do with security," said ATA spokesman David Castelveter. “You don’t get to bypass security, and airlines already offer expedited movement to the head of the line for first-class and elite fliers."