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Onto the fast track, with the press of a finger

Fingerprinting and, if necessary, an iris scan allow pre-approved travelers to get to their gates with fewer hassles at airport checkpoints.

September 14, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Los Angeles — Ron and Gina Calisher of Huntington Beach hardly looked like prototypical frequent business travelers as they made their way last month to the Transportation Security Administration's registered traveler checkpoint at United Airlines' Terminal 6 at Los Angeles International Airport. With their casual dress -- open-toed sandals and shorts -- they weren't on their way to one of the usual business destinations that take them away from home 33 weeks a year but, instead, were headed for a Hawaiian vacation.

Bypassing the long line of travelers waiting to go through security, they walked up to the kiosk and whipped out their gold and white TSA registered traveler cards. They inserted the cards into a kiosk and placed their right index fingers on a small pad on the front of the machine. In seconds, a green light on the screen before them indicated they had been positively identified.

Waiting behind the couple was Ken Pazera, a TSA agent, who marked their boarding passes with a green-inked approval stamp, and they moved to the head of the security line. They were on their way.

The TSA began rolling out a 90-day test of its registered traveler program in July, starting at LAX and moving to four other airports around the country: Minneapolis-St. Paul International, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Boston Logan International and Ronald Reagan Washington National. Working from the airlines' frequent-flier lists, the TSA registered 10,000 frequent business travelers in the voluntary program, 2,000 at each airport.

For frequent travelers, the promise is a smoother, faster trip through security. Although registered travelers still must pass through metal detectors and have their carry-on luggage X-rayed, they are allowed to bypass the long lines of nonregistered travelers, a privilege usually reserved for first-class passengers and elite members of frequent-flier programs. TSA-registered travelers also do not have to undergo more invasive secondary screening, unless they set off metal detectors.

To register for the program, travelers in the pilot program had to provide the TSA with identifying information, such as their names and addresses and Social Security, frequent-flier and driver's license numbers. They had to submit to criminal background checks, which included searches of the FBI's database. The clearance and registration process took about 10 days.

Registration at LAX, which is closed until after the trial ends Oct. 26, took place at the same kiosk that registered travelers use when they check in, next to the security checkpoint at the airport. A blank card resembling a credit card was inserted into the kiosk to start the process. After a traveler typed in identifying information, electronic photographs were taken of both index fingers, then encrypted and securely stored in the kiosk. Then an infrared image was taken of the traveler's irises, capturing the individual characteristics of each and converting it to 240 data points.

"What the technology does is take a picture of the iris and then reduces it to a template," said Tom Conaway, managing partner for homeland security at Unisys, which oversees the project at LAX.

"It is an algorithmic representation of the iris. It doesn't take a picture and compare pictures." Because every human iris is unique, that algorithmic representation acts as a fingerprint in verifying a person's identity.

The iris scan is a backup to the fingerprints and is used only if both fingerprints fail to confirm the passenger's identity, possibly from machine failure or injury to the fingers. So far, the fingerprint data have worked.

If the iris scan calls to mind the scene in "A Clockwork Orange" in which Malcolm McDowell was strapped to a chair, his eyelids propped wide-open with a painful-looking metal device, the reality is much less dramatic.

Here's how it went when it was demonstrated on me: I stood about 18 inches from the kiosk and stared at a yellow eye-shaped image in a small mirror. If I stepped too close, the machine gently urged me to step back. Once properly aligned, two images were taken of my irises.

After the images were coded and stored in the machine, one more image was taken to check that it had worked. It had. My simulated registration took about five minutes.

By mid-August, the program, which began July 26 at LAX, had screened more than 500 passengers. On a recent Monday, 57 people passed through between 5 and 10 a.m.

Traffic is slowly picking up, the TSA's Pazera said. Only 12 people passed through the first day of the program.

Even travelers not enrolled in the program could benefit from it, the TSA said, because the agency could concentrate its efforts on travelers unknown to it and spend less time on people known to be a low risk, such as the Calishers.

"We have one mission and one mission only," Ron Calisher said. "To get to our destination."

He and all travelers might get where they're going more quickly, the TSA said. Screening times at LAX Terminal 6 between 9 and 10 a.m. Mondays average 14 minutes, with a maximum of 20 minutes, according to the TSA's website. Traffic is heaviest on Mondays and Tuesdays, busy travel days for business people.

Whether there will be an opportunity to expand the registered traveler program to more airports and passengers depends on the results of this pilot program.

"It is not possible to speculate as to what will happen at the end of 90 days," TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said of the LAX trial. "We need to analyze the data collected from all airports and determine how we will move forward."

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