Fly by security – for a price: ‘Registered traveler’ program to let passengers pay to avoid long lines

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Business fliers accustomed to first-class seating will soon be eligible for privileged security screening at Indianapolis International Airport.

Airport operator BAA Indianapolis is about to seek proposals from firms to operate a “registered traveler” program. It will entitle any frequent travelers who pass a government background check to use special security checkpoints-bypassing long lines and trouserloosening “secondary screening” passengers must sometimes endure.

No more suffering in line behind bubble-gum-popping teens headed for Aruba. Show your registered traveler ID card and say “auf wiedersehen” to frowning Frau Rubberglove at the checkpoint used by most travelers.

“We have been treating virtually every passenger as a sus- pect, which is utter nonsense,” said David Forbes, president of BoydForbes Inc., an Evergreen Colo.-based aviation security firm.

The Indianapolis Airport Authority board has given BAA the green light to seek bids from firms to operate the registered traveler program. Those requests may go out as soon as the next few weeks, said Reggie Baumgardner, security manager for BAA Indianapolis.

At least in concept, “it would be great,” said Tim Durham, chairman of Indianapolis-based Obsidian Enterprises, who sometimes travels five days a week, much of it waiting in security lines. “You wait and wait and wait….”

“I would love a card that would zip me through the lines,” said Tom Stemlar, an Emmis Communications Corp. TV executive who spends roughly 46 weeks a year traveling. Once, he waited in line with 200 people at Indianapolis International to get through security.

But the registered traveler program now being tested in Orlando by New York City-based Verified Identity Pass Inc. and the federal Transportation Security Administration is not without its costs-both in fees and loss of privacy.

Registered travelers pay Verified an annual fee of $80. At last count, 7,000 people were enrolled. The Orlando airport authority reportedly gets a 25-percent cut of the fee-based revenue.

BAA said it also would collect a percentage of revenue from the Indianapolis program, as is the usual practice under agreements with airport concessionaires.

While the registered traveler program makes it less likely participants will have to endure more extensive screening-required of those deemed a special risk or pulled out of line for a random search-it does require them to disclose other intimate details about themselves.

In Orlando, applicants to the program must provide at least two forms of identification, such as a driver’s license and birth certificate. They also must submit to fingerprinting and have images of their iris scanned. The information is sent to the TSA, which conducts background checks. Later, if cleared, the participant receives a card that contains the biometric data captured during the application process.

Arriving at Orlando’s airport, the registered traveler presents the card and either places a finger or eye over a scanner, to ensure that the card indeed belongs to that person.

The passenger still passes through a metal detector. As Verified Identity Pass’ CEO Steven Brill states on the company’s Web site: “Just because someone has no record of being a threat doesn’t mean they might not suddenly become one.”

Supposedly, the TSA continually monitors the background of participants to make sure they haven’t become a security risk.

Privacy advocates worry such programs amount to the government’s conducting surveillance of where citizens are traveling. Verified Identity Pass said it automatically purges records of passengers’ travel within 48 hours.

The quick purging of travel records and involvement of private contractors is some comfort to Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Assuming records are purged, “this is a tremendous anti-surveillance feature that has never been seen in government-operated programs,” said Harper, who has concerns about the TSA’s computer-assisted passenger prescreening system, or CAPPS.

Harper said privately issued identification also has an advantage in that terms are governed by a privacy policy that amounts to a contract, giving members “enforceable legal rights,” unlike policies of the government that can change at a whim.

On the other hand, ID and background information of a participant is passed on to the TSA, which doesn’t have to answer for its misuse. In fact, those denied entrance into the registered traveler program have no right to find out why they were denied by TSA. And might that denial be the basis for special screening the next time that person flies?

Harper, who is a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s data privacy and integrity advisory panel, is also concerned that the registered traveler program could become mandatory.

“Indeed, there is good reason to object to the program in its entirety simply because it builds a traveler surveillance infrastructure and conditions people to accept government investigation as a prerequisite for traveling within the United States … The risk that Registered Traveler could become mandatory is grave,” Harper said in testimony last June to a House subcommittee on economic security, infrastructure protection and cyber security.

Privacy “is the most contentious issue that comes up” with the program, agreed security expert Forbes.

He’s been put off by a number of TSA pilot programs that haven’t been sustained. But, added Forbes, “I do think that they deserve support for pushing forward” to find a rational and effective screening system.

BAA’s Baumgardner said ensuring privacy would be key criteria in the airport’s search for a contractor, at least four of which have been approved by the TSA.

Ultimately, Forbes sees the private sector contributing to the development of better and more effective airport screening. He noted that “credentialing” is now the hot buzzword as credit card companies develop high-tech credit cards and applications of biometrics to improve security in the financial world.

BAA, which runs the airport under a contract with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, wants to improve operations and collect some cash where it can.

“Our original reason was to provide better service to the frequent traveler, the guy who is not going to blow up the airplane,” said Dennis Rosebrough, spokesman for BAA.

Baumgardner said the registered traveler program has potential to benefit those who don’t participate by allowing the TSA screeners to use their time more efficiently-potentially speeding up processing at all checkpoints.

The program has helped in Orlando, where the airport often is swamped with leisure fliers, said airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell.

“We have a lot of mothers with two babies and strollers and bags. So if you can have a line for a registered traveler, it makes it easier for everyone,” Fennell said.

Delays caused by airport security are an issue when it comes to deciding how to travel. Obsidian’s Durham said some of his associates don’t fly as much because of the extra time they’re required to spend at airports.

“I’ve got a lot of guys who-five hours and under-they’re going to drive it.”

The TSA previously tested the concept in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

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