Registered traveler program taking flight

The Transportation Security Administration kicks off its registered traveler program at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in early September, a TSA spokesman said.

The registered traveler test pilot, which uses biometric information to verify select passengers' identities, is the last in a series of 90-day trials that TSA is conducting at five airports.

Select passengers from different airlines have been invited to register by providing personal information, two forms of identification and digital fingerprints and iris scans.

"This is the first opportunity for a national test-bed for these [biometric] technologies" at airports and for possible use in other modes of transportation, said Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman.

EDS Corp. of Plano, Texas, is running the pilot at Reagan National.

TSA designed the registered traveler program to speed the security screening process at airports. The results at the five airports will determine future applications of the registered traveler program at other domestic airports.

The pilot program at National is being done with American Airlines, which sent letters to local fliers to register for the program. TSA expects to collect data for 2,000 passengers at National Airport. As of Wednesday morning, 356 passengers were registered.

Early next month, TSA will set up designated checkpoint lanes at National to expedite the security screening process for approved American Airlines passengers who registered for the program.

TSA will decide when to open the program to other airlines at the airport after it analyzes the efficiency of the equipment, including the ability of the biometric technology to enhance the security screening process, Kayser said. The program's costs and user feedback also will be evaluated, Kayser said.

The other four participating airports are Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with Northwest Airlines, George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport for Continental Airlines passengers, Los Angeles International Airport for United Airlines passengers, and Boston Logan International Airport with American Airlines.

Participants in the registered traveler program must be U.S. citizens or nationals or permanent legal residents.

At the airports, TSA collects personal information from travelers, including names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail, dates and places of birth, eye color, height, citizenship and previous residences in the past five years along with fingerprint and iris scans.

The agency then checks the information against federal law-enforcement databases. Passengers who pass the background check will be notified by e-mail.

The scans take about five minutes per passenger and the background checks take about a week to 10 days, said William Ritz, public relations manager of EDS Global Government Affairs.

EDS is providing project management, biometric technology, tactical operations and systems integration support services for the pilots at Regean National and Logan airports. Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa. is providing services at the other airports, Kayser said.

During the pilot program, each airports is using different technologies and different airport security configurations. At Logan Airport, for example, passengers' biometric data is encoded on smart cards that passengers carry with them and insert into kiosks for identity verification before they depart. At National Airport, a database system is being used to collect the information.

Once the program goes live, registered travelers will go to a biometrics kiosk, which asks for their fingerprints or an iris scan or both. They then will pass through primary security screening, although they will not be randomly selected for secondary screening, according to TSA. Registered travelers who set off walk-through metal detectors will undergo additional screening.

Some passengers at National yesterday said they were eager to try out the biometric technology, but didn't think the program would save them too much time in security screening lines at the airport.

Paul Booth, an executive at a local labor union who flies in and out of National about once a week, said that he decided to register for the program out of "six parts curiosity and four parts convenience." He added that he didn't spend too much time in security check lines and expected to save only five to 10 minutes with the registered traveler program.

Gene Carter, a corporate director at brokerage firm A.G. Edwards, said he doesn't expect to see any cuts in his waiting time at security checkpoints because airlines usually have express services to pass premium fliers quickly though lines. But, he added, "I was curious about the iris [scan] technology. It sounds like something out of James Bond."

(Posted Aug. 24 and corrected Aug. 31, 2004)

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