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`Fast Pass' Plan Gets Green Light

April 29, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Tired of standing in endless security lines at airports? For frequent travelers, it's about to get easier to obtain a "fast pass" through the checkpoints.

The federal Transportation Security Agency announced last week that it was proceeding with the next phase of its controversial registered traveler program. It will be in operation at as many as 20 airports by the end of the year, though just which airports is still to be decided.

The program is designed to allow travelers to receive expedited security screening through dedicated security lanes at airports after submitting to background checks, providing biometric data including a fingerprint and eye scan and paying an annual fee.

Initially conceived in 2002, the program has earned its share of fans and detractors.

The agency is vague about exactly how much it will improve security and travelers' airport experiences. It says that all registered travelers "should receive an expedited and more convenient checkpoint experience" but "an element of randomness will also be integrated into [it] to ensure unpredictability and disrupt potential efforts by terrorists to thwart the system."

Los Angeles International Airport was one of five nationwide that took part in a pilot registered traveler program in the summer of 2004. And LAX is lobbying to become one of the first airports to have the program introduced on a permanent basis, said airport spokesman Tom Winfrey. He said LAX could have the program up and running before the end of the year.

At least two frequent fliers who took part in the trial program would like to see it implemented permanently at LAX and other airports around the country.

Ron and Gina Calisher are on the road 33 weeks a year for their Huntington Beach-based company Calisher and Associates, which develops and manages healthcare facilities. The couple has already flown 50,000 miles domestically this year. They were among the 2,000 frequent fliers invited to register at LAX to be a part of the 90-day pilot program in 2004. They used it weekly.

"We would love for them to expand it," Gina Calisher said. "For people who travel every week, it makes life extremely pleasurable."

For the Calishers, the program simply formalizes a reality of their travel lives. They already are recognized by many of the security screeners at LAX and airports around the country.

After submitting to background checks, the Calishers were issued cards for a kiosk at a security line for registered travelers only. Their fingerprints and eye scan data were stored on the card. To get into the line, they inserted the card and placed a finger on a small reader. The machine beeped when the card matched the fingerprint, their boarding passes were stamped and they were on their way.

The registered traveler program does have its foes. Among the most prominent is the Air Transport Assn., an airline industry trade group. An early advocate of the program, it now believes that improvements in airport security procedures and a lack of obvious benefits render the program unnecessary.

"Registered traveler neither offers the benefits to passengers nor the breadth of use that justify its introduction as a permanent program," James C. May, president and chief executive of the group, said in testimony before Congress in February. "It should be eliminated."

On the other hand, not having to remove their shoes is by itself a big enough incentive for most frequent fliers to sign up for the program, said Glenn Argenbright, chief executive of Saflink Corp., which makes identification security products using biometrics and smart cards.

Saflink announced this week a partnership with Microsoft Corp., Expedia Corporate Travel and Johnson Controls to market a registered traveler program called FLO to airports. It comes a bit late to the game after the pilot program, which was administered by Unisys Corp. and Florida-based Verified Identity Pass.

Verified Identity Pass, which is partnering with Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Electric Co., has enrolled more than 15,000 travelers at Orlando International Airport for its registered traveler pilot project there, which began in June. It is currently the only ongoing registered traveler program.

Argenbright is not concerned with being third into the market, given what he sees as a potential customer base of as many as 42 million travelers.

Saflink is in talks with airports to provide its program but declined to name them. Verified Identity Pass has signed agreements with the airports in San Jose and Indianapolis to run their programs, pending federal approval.

Verified Identity Pass charges travelers $80 a year to participate in its program, called Clear. Saflink hasn't yet announced the fees associated with its program.

The Transportation Security Agency has mandated that the competing private companies' systems have interoperability. If, for example, Saflink provides the systems at LAX, travelers who sign up there would still be able to use it in Orlando or any other airport with registered traveler, regardless of which private company is contracted to provide it.

Of the airports being considered, LAX is a good candidate, Argenbright said. But it might not be until summer that the agency decides which will be among the 10 to 20 airports to get approval.

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James Gilden can be reached at james.gilden@latimes.com.

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