Flying Through Airport Security

from the Wall Street Journal

February 27, 2008; Page D1

On a crowded Tuesday morning at Orlando International Airport, Lou Stanislao, a 61-year-old project manager and frequent flier, had his fingerprint scanned at a kiosk designated for "registered travelers." His name popped up on the screen, allowing him to move into another line -- where he doffed his shoes and handed over his bag for scanning. Next, he showed his ID and ticket to a security agent and picked up his belongings. In all, he breezed through airport security in five minutes.

For this, Mr. Stanislao pays $100 a year.

He's among the 100,000 registered members of Verified Identity Pass Inc.'s Clear security system -- one of three companies authorized by the federal Transportation Security Administration that currently offers expedited security lines.

[Go to map]
See a map of airports that participate in registered traveler programs.

Yet, more than seven years after Congress approved the concept of an expedited airport security clearance system, only 16 out of 3,364 airports in the U.S. are operating any form of the system. That's because the program doesn't necessarily make the skies safer: Would-be terrorists with a clean history could, in theory, be approved for a pass, officials say. So the Transportation Security Administration abandoned the effort, deciding to focus resources on other security efforts. The program was then turned over to private companies.

In the private sector, the issue of convenience emerged as a priority. And with total passenger levels at U.S. airports approaching 700 million a year, more airports have signed on. In the past year, three airports have implemented the program. These include Oakland and both major Washington, D.C., airports.

About a dozen other airports have expressed interest trying to start programs this year. The country's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, recently listened to a presentation about the program from vendors. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the second-busiest airport, and Los Angeles International Airport are vying for vendors in those cities as well. As part of the contract, airports each receive between $77,000 and $250,000 a year from Registered Traveler companies.

John Harrington, a photographer in Washington D.C., is convinced the program speeds up his travel. He plans his routes specifically to go through airports that offer the service whenever possible. Last year, he flew into San Francisco International where the program is offered, for instance, rather than Oakland International Airport, which just received the program in January. "It gives me more time to spend on my work instead of waiting at the airport," he says.

The program works like this: Applicants fill out a form that asks basic questions, such as Social Security number and previous addresses. Two forms of identification are submitted, and the applicant's fingerprints and irises are scanned. Then the TSA conducts a background check. The person's information is compared with names on suspected-terrorist lists and checked in databases to determine criminal background and U.S. citizenship. If approved, the applicant receives a credit-card-size pass with an annual fee of anywhere from $100 to $200.

This is all possible because back in 2001, amid the airline gridlock that followed the 9/11 attacks, federal officials -- and eventually Congress -- authorized a program aimed at reducing the hassles of new security regimes for frequent fliers without compromising safety. The Registered Traveler program was intended to move those with clean records to the front of the line, says Kip Hawley, TSA administrator.

Over the next few years, TSA poured federal funds into testing biometric systems for identification. In 2004, it set up a pilot program in five different airports, offering about 2,000 people at each location a free membership. Officials soon realized, however, the flawed logic behind the Registered Traveler program: It might actually increase security risks because a terrorist with a clean record could still get on a plane.

Still, vendors of the Registered Traveler system point to security benefits. Steven Brill, the writer and media entrepreneur who is chief executive officer of Verified, says the program does enhance airport security by letting TSA know who the members are through the enrollment process. On a busy Monday morning in Orlando, Mr. Brill says, about 15% to 30% of the passengers are Clear members. "The airport knows who those people are," he says. "That's a lot of hay out of the hay stack."

So far, Verified's Clear system is the dominant player. The company, which began operating in late 2005 at Orlando International Airport, has kiosks in 14 airports. Unisys Corp. operates at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and Vigilant Solutions offers services at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida. The memberships work across participating airports, regardless of the company that sold the pass.

Overall, the Registered Traveler companies are going after hard-core business travelers -- the frequent fliers and first-class passengers with "elite" status who may already have access to fast lanes. So the companies are emphasizing additional benefits.

Customers who sign up with Vigilant Solutions, a Jacksonville Beach, Fla., company, get discounts at some golf courses in Florida. Vigilant Solutions has about 3,000 participants since its first operation opened in August and expects membership to grow to 10,000 by the end of 2008, says Julie Venditti, chief technology officer.

FLO Corp., a security company based in Chantilly, Va., has aggressively pursued corporate clientele for its version of the service, but doesn't yet operate at any airports. FLO says it has secured 150,000 participants to join its program nationwide, adding that its members will receive discounted limousine services and other benefits.

Still, some airports have been slow to offer the option. Officials in Atlanta have spent the past five years discussing the possibility of implementing a Registered Traveler program. If a vendor is selected in the next few months, the program could be running this year, officials say. But they don't seem to be in any hurry, instead worrying about the potential for irritating travelers who aren't in the program.

"We have to accommodate all the passengers that come through and make sure we're not causing anything detrimental to people not participating in the project," says Herschel Grangent, spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

Road warriors like Phillip Merdinger, an Atlanta consultant, don't understand why the program is taking so long to catch on.

He pays about $100 each year to avoid security-line snarls at airports such as San Francisco International Airport and LaGuardia International Airport in New York. In addition to shorter waits, he also receives help from company-employed workers with laptop removal and luggage sorting to speed up the line.

"You start to get spoiled when you're moving quickly though the airport," says Mr. Merdinger, who flies several times a week using Clear.

Write to Stephanie Chen at stephanie.chen@wsj.com

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