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Security slowdowns at the airport

Is the time wasted costing your company money? And what can be done to hurry up the screening process at the nation's leading airports
Image: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
A long line waits at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Monday, June 28, 2004, where frequent business flyers waited their turns to sign up for a 90-day project which allows them to trade personal privacy for travel efficiency. The project is the first in the country and includes "biometric" identification which involves eye scans, fingerprints and criminal background checks. Participants will be able to pass through a special lane at the security checkpoint begining in JulyJim Mone / AP
/ Source: Reuters

The technology to screen for security risks without the knots that bedevil and delay today's  travel is already on line at some of the world's airports, but its widespread use hinges on cost and other issues.

The issue is of more than passing interest since airport delays are costing businesses millions of dollars annually. “The technology is there today,” says Evan Scott, president of ESGI, a Philadelphia-based consulting company specializing in homeland security technologies. “It's a matter of who's paying for it, rolling it out and getting common standards ... the rest is political,” he added.

Scott estimates it will be another five years before passenger identification technology becomes more commonplace, unless there is another incident like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, creating a need for reassessment.

He predicts a much wider use of fingerprint technology, with electronic scanners checking all 10 fingers when passengers place their palms down at a check point. Those who have put their prints on file beforehand can be verified as to their true identity.

The other common techniques involve pictures taken and electronically stored at check points to be pulled up and compared when the traveler passes such a point again. Also, biometric data stored in passports or some other travel document as well as technology to verify such documents.

But getting such systems to work in tandem with the same standards across the world, while answering concerns about privacy, is the challenge—along with who foots the bill, said Scott.

He is also a corporate board member for New Hampshire-based Imaging Automation which sells technology that can verify documents—rooting out fake or tampered—with passports, for instance.

Australia recently deployed that technology at all of its international airports. It uses multiple light scans to examine the security features of travel documents, then compares the readings to a comprehensive database of valid document features for verification. Canada, Hungary, Sweden, Finland and other countries also have deployed the same document verification technology.

In the United States the Transportation Security Administration has been moving toward a passenger profiling system based on the traveler's birth date, home phone and home address, information that would be used to code individuals as to the level of perceived security risk.

The system would check government private sector intelligence and consumer data to verify passengers' identities and determine if they have criminal records or links to suspect groups. The government will also hold a test later this year allowing regular fliers to submit to a preflight screening process in order to bypass long lines at security checkpoints.

The Virginia-based National Business Travel Association recently issued a report on the developing U.S. program that raises some of the problems that screening technology still faces.

“No approach is absolutely secure,” the group said. The false match rates on fingerprints, for example, can be up to 8 percent, it said, and any kind of universal registered traveler card “must be protected against fraudulent use or forgery.”

The report noted that a program in operation at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv allows frequent Israeli international travelers speedy entrance and exit. The users, about 80,000 to date, submit biometric data based on a hand scan and agree to an in-depth interview. Once in the program, passengers need only place their hand on a reader, receiving a receipt which allows them through a gate.

Similar programs have been implemented at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, the business travel group said.

By one estimate, the group said, as many as 40 percent of world air passengers would be eligible for some sort of registered traveler program that would involve pre-screening and biometric identification, paying perhaps a $50 annual fee to participate.

But it also said some sort of mechanism needs to be put in place that would give passengers denied boarding or given a bad security rating a place to appeal and correct any mistakes in information.