WASHINGTON — Passengers could significantly cut their wait in airport security lines under a program, coming this month to Los Angeles, that the government began testing Wednesday in Minneapolis.
With the "registered traveler" program, volunteers must pass a government background check and agree to digital fingerprinting and an iris scan. They are then issued high-tech identification cards that allow them to use an express security lane.
As low-risk passengers known to authorities, they avoid the more intrusive inspections that result from being flagged by the airlines' computerized passenger screening systems.
The program could eliminate a common source of aggravation and reduce the time to get through security from 15 minutes or longer to a few minutes.
After prodding from the airlines and business groups, the Transportation Security Administration is testing the idea in five cities with members of frequent flier programs. Air travel has begun to return to levels reached before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and security delays are emerging as a problem at some airports.
Frequent fliers will be attracted to the program because it eliminates last-minute uncertainties, said Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles public policy center.
"It will separate the experienced people from the amateurs," Poole said. "They will know that you are not supposed to leave your keys in your pocket and make the machine beep. It also means that you are not going to be facing people ahead of you who are going to get singled out and hold up the line."
But Poole, a longtime proponent of the program, worried that the test designed by the TSA was too limited. For example, participants will be able to use the express security lanes only at their home airports, not on the return trip.
The TSA wanted to keep the pilot program manageable, said spokesman Nico Melendez. "We can't do it for 1 million people all over the country, because that's not an effective way to introduce a new tool," he said.
The agency wants to sign up 10,000 people who travel at least once a week for 90-day tests at five airports this summer.
In Minneapolis, Northwest Airlines invited members of its most elite frequent flier program to participate. When registration opened June 28, "there were folks in line as early as 5 in the morning," said Northwest spokesman Thomas Becher.
Airline crew members, who go through the same security procedures as passengers, also are taking part. Northwest registered 2,200 frequent fliers and about 200 crew members, Becher said.
The demand could be higher in Los Angeles, where United Airlines plans to offer the program to its frequent fliers at Los Angeles International Airport.
"We are targeting getting started at the end of the month," said United spokesman Jeff Green. "It's going to improve the customer experience if we can get the people who use the airport frequently through security more quickly."
Other airlines and airports taking part in the test are Continental Airlines at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and American Airlines at two airports, Boston's Logan and Washington's Ronald Reagan National. The test is costing the government $3.8 million.
The registered traveler program is not a new idea; Israel, which has some of the tightest airport security in the world, has had its own version for years. If the TSA test succeeds, the program will be broadened.
Under the program, which is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, travelers go to a designated location and give their personal data to the TSA, including computerized fingerprints and eye scans. The government will run the information against national security and law enforcement databases looking for fugitives or people with terrorist connections.
If the traveler has a clean record, he or she is issued an identification card with an encoded fingerprint and iris scan. The traveler presents the card at the airport and submits to a digital fingerprint or an iris check, or both, to verify that he or she is the same person as on the card.
On Wednesday in Minneapolis, the identity procedure was taking seconds, said Becher, the Northwest spokesman.
The registered travelers presented their documents to an agent, who asked them to put their left index finger on a scanner. After about three seconds, a computer screen read: "Success. You may proceed."
Registered travelers still had to pass through a metal detector and have their carry-on items X-rayed, but the entire process took about a minute, compared to about five minutes for other passengers.
The TSA initially resisted the registered traveler idea, fearing it could be infiltrated by terrorists. But pressure from airlines and Congress forced the agency to take a second look.
"A key element of this program that cannot be understated is that registered travelers will not be exempt from screening," said Melendez, the TSA spokesman.
In another development Wednesday, the TSA announced that employees of stores and restaurants in secure areas of airports must go through screening checkpoints before they report to work each day. Previously, employees were not required to be screened, although they had to submit to a background check.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) called the lack of screening "a gaping security loophole" and pressured the agency to tighten the rules.
Associated Press contributed to this report.