Magazine

Zipping Through Airport Security


A freelance sports videographer who supplies footage to ESPN and Fox Sports, Brad Mitten of Houston travels several times a week. Whether he's jetting off to cover a PGA tournament or NFL game, he usually has to endure long lines at the airport to get through security. "It's a real hassle," says Mitten. So before he left to cover the Olympics this month, he enrolled in the Registered Traveler Program recently introduced by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA). By giving up a measure of privacy, Mitten hopes he'll avoid some of the delays associated with post-September 11 travel.

The TSA rolled out the program in July at select airports across the country. It's up and running at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Los Angeles International, and Houston George Bush Intercontinental. Boston Logan International and Ronald Reagan Washington National will offer it by the end of August.

READING IRISES

Registered travelers get to bypass the usual security checkpoint and stand in their own designated quick queue. There, a biometric device that looks like an automated teller machine takes about five seconds to clear them by reading either their fingerprints or irises. Registered travelers still have to go through a metal detector and have their carry-on baggage pass through an X-ray scanner. But these individuals won't be randomly selected for additional screening. "The main benefit is you essentially get to go to the front of the line," says Jim Marchand, a federal security director with TSA.

To qualify for the program, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident who flies out of a participating airport at least once a week. You also have to be a frequent flier with the carrier that's working with the TSA at that airport. The official carriers are Northwest Airlines (NWAC) in Minneapolis-St. Paul, United Airlines (UAL) in Los Angeles, Continental Airlines (CAL) in Houston, and American Airlines (AMR) in Boston and Washington.

You can register at sign-up stations at the airports. If you meet the basic criteria, you're invited to fill out an enrollment form, which asks for your name, birth date, Social Security number, contact information, and addresses of all the places you have lived in the past five years. You must also submit two kinds of government identification, such as your passport and driver's license. After that, a TSA representative will take digital scans of your irises and your index fingers. "It takes five minutes at the most," says Marchand. There are no fees because the program is still in its testing phase.

PRIVACY WORRIES

Then you wait seven to 10 days to see if you pass the background check. Although the TSA is not specific, it says the security investigation includes checks of several crime databases for outstanding warrants, prior arrests, and convictions. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travelers Coalition, a Radnor (Pa.) advocacy group, says he has concerns about the privacy of registered travelers. "No one knows what rules are in place to safeguard personal information," he says. Recent revelations that JetBlue Airways (JBLU) and Northwest Airlines inappropriately shared passenger information with the TSA and the airlines' contractors have made travelers "justifiably worried that their data might be misused," he adds.

In its privacy statement, TSA says it will share personal information with anyone necessary to assist in the operation of the program, including equipment suppliers, airport officials, airlines, law enforcement officials, and other government agencies. Despite this level of exposure, TSA officials report intense public interest. More than 7,200 people have applied to participate so far.

The test phase will conclude at the end of October. The TSA will then determine whether to expand the program to other airports and how much to charge applicants. For travelers, it boils down to what they value more -- convenience or confidentiality.

By Kate Murphy


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