Cleared for take off
Registered traveler vendors ready to fly, but are airports buying?
Business travelers soon may see friendlier skies as the Homeland Security Department prepares to debut the nationwide Registered Traveler program, which will shorten wait times in airport security lines.
"If I'm at a meeting at a hotel at the airport, I know I can be on my plane in five to 10 minutes," said Steven Brill, chief executive of Verified Identity Pass Inc. of New York, which has been operating a Registered Traveler pilot at the Orlando airport since June 2005. "It gets you in a separate lane, to the front of the line."
The goal is to speed travelers who have enrolled, paid an annual fee and been prescreened, through a designated lane at airport security checkpoints. As part of the enrollment, the travelers get biometric identification cards that they display for verification at kiosks in participating airports. Verified Identity Pass, Unisys Corp. and several other companies expect within weeks to debut Registered Traveler at airports nationwide.
"We'll be operational in Reno [Nev.] this month," said Larry Zmuda, partner in the homeland security practice at Unisys. "And we'll absolutely be marketing this to the other airports."
The Transportation Security Administration expects to begin overseeing Registered Traveler at airports nationwide within weeks after authorizing demonstration projects at airports in Orlando, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Houston. Airports will sponsor the nationwide program, and technology companies will operate it.
In the works for more than two years, Registered Traveler has received a large amount of publicity as a frequent flyer-like perquisite. It has been popular, too, with more than 30,000 people enrolled in the pilot project in Orlando, according to Verified spokeswoman Cindy Rosenthal.
The nationwide expansion could have even broader appeal as it offers, for the first time, to let Registered Traveler identification cards operate at more than one airport. In the past, Orlando travelers only received speedy treatment in Orlando. Now they can use designated lanes at every participating airport.
Only a handful of airports to date have committed to be sponsors, though many more are believed to be interested. Furthermore, Registered Traveler is likely to get competition from airport and airline "express lane" and "platinum lane" programs.
In Portland, Ore., for example, frequent flyers at various airlines have been eligible since 2001 to use security express lanes. "We have addressed the need for express lanes for frequent travelers," said airport spokesman Steve Johnson.
But those express programs offer limited benefits, Verified Identity Pass' Brill contends. "I've stood in line for 20 minutes in 'express lanes,'" he said.
A further challenge is that Registered Traveler's smart card technology, which contains fingerprint and iris information and is verified by insertion into a reader, awaits real-life operation. The cards' interoperability was demonstrated in tests by the American Association of Airport Executives, which runs the program's central management information clearinghouse and its interoperability elements. Colleen Chamberlain, a spokeswoman for the airport executives, said Verified Identity Pass is the only company whose technology has been certified by the organization as conforming to the interoperability standards for Registered Traveler. Other companies' card technologies are being tested for interoperability but those tests are not yet complete, she said.
Some questions have been asked about the tests. "Ideally, you would want to test whether one vendor's card works in another vendor's reader. I don't know if that has happened with Registered Traveler," said Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association, a trade group.
Verified's card was tested for interoperability against a card provided by AAAE, said company CEO Brill. Information was not immediately available from AAAE as to which card formats were tested, but a source close to the program said Verified's card was tested against a "dummy" card, because no other vendor cards were available at the time.
Nonetheless, the airport executives group and others are confident that Registered Traveler cards will be interoperable.
"The Transportation Security Clearinghouse, along with Daon Inc., LG Iris Technology Division and Motorola Inc. have created an unparalleled information management system," said Carter Morris, AAAE senior vice president, in a recent news release. "Today, the pioneering technology of the Central Information Management System will enable the rapid and secure deployment of an interoperable Registered Traveler program."
Executives for the service providers: Verified, Unisys, and Verant Identification Systems Inc. of Rochester, N.Y., are optimistic as well. TSA approved those companies in December as having met the minimum requirements as service providers for Registered Traveler.
"We are very confident that the cards will be interoperable," Zmuda of Unisys said. "We expect to see this program blossom."
Executives at a fourth company, Vigilant Systems Inc. of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., also are seeking TSA approval to participate in Registered Traveler. Vigilant currently operates a preferred traveler program at the Jacksonville airport.
The airport group also said it has signed agreements with Unisys, Verant, Verified Identity Pass and Vigilant to use the clearinghouse for Registered Traveler.
Verified's Brill said the company has received additional approvals enabling it to begin offering enrollment and verification services for Registered Traveler at J.F.K. International Airport in New York in mid-January. In addition, within months it will relaunch at Orlando and initiate service at airports in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and San Jose, Calif., he said.
Verified has added a unique feature to its Registered Traveler lanes: a shoe scanner that checks for explosive devices. The scanner is produced by General Electric Co., which is an investor in Verified Identity Pass. The goal is for travelers to move even more quickly through the security line because they have had their shoes scanned and will not need to remove them.
According to Brill, Verified has clocked a 15 percent reduction in wait time for people using the designated lanes, trademarked as "clear" lanes, at Orlando, and in testing has seen a 30 percent to 35 percent reduction in wait time when the shoe scanners are in operation. The shoe scanners have been tested since July and officially will go into use when Registered Traveler launches this month, he said.
"In polls of things that travelers consider an inconvenience, having to remove their shoes is generally listed first," Brill said.
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.