Features

Timed travel

Transportation | A new program allows frequent fliers to speed up trips through airport security

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

For frequent fliers like Mark Peck, every minute counts. Some call it the art of the business traveler: the learned skill of minimizing the time it takes to get from driver's seat to loading carry-on luggage above the aisle of a commercial jet.

Those who negotiate an airport every week (or multiple times a week) learn to do it well. "There are plenty of times when you're cutting it very close," said Mr. Peck, who logged close to 100,000 air miles while working for Cisco last year. "There are times when you walk up to that gate just as they're boarding and you're trying to get somewhere and you've got almost no time to spare. You count on those close shaves."

There's something else business travelers count on-the routine indignities of a security screening. But for airline customers willing to shell out as much as $100 a year, that process could soon change.

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On June 20, the Transportation Security Administration, the bureaucracy charged with maintaining security at U.S. airports, was scheduled to unveil a Registered Traveler program designed to allow travelers to hasten their trips through airport security. Up to 80 airports have reported to the TSA interest in implementing the program that would set up a separate screening system for passengers who pay an annual fee between $80 and $100 and submit to a background check.

That's an idea that already pleases a lot of business travelers. "You know on an annual basis, for $80 to $100, it wouldn't have to save me more than a couple minutes to make it justifiable," said Mr. Peck, whose present job with a startup in St. Louis affords him a bit of a travel hiatus (though not for long).

For the past few years, the TSA operated pilot versions of the Registered Traveler program at five major airports (Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, and Washington, D.C.). A private company has partnered with the TSA to operate a popular Registered Traveler program at Orlando International Airport. How has it worked for the road warriors? Passengers who paid an up-front fee got to whiz through a separate security gate without showing their driver's license. Instead, passengers enrolled in the program simply flashed a biometric identification card that, along with retina and fingerprint scans, verified the passenger's identity. In order to get the card, passengers had to pass a thorough background check.

The national program should find numerous customers, according to Mr. Peck: "Considering the amount of things that business travelers accumulate to make their lives easier-PDAs, cell phone accessories, special luggage-I don't think people will even blink at $80 or $100."

Some airports, though, are skeptical, despite a National Business Traveler Association survey finding that 92 percent of business travelers would be interested in signing up for a Registered Traveler program. Boston Logan International Airport's Registered Traveler pilot program ended nearly a year ago, but officials there don't plan on bringing the system back. Logan officials simply don't think there will be enough interest, especially since the TSA recently announced that program participants still may have to kick off their loafers or heels and remove laptops from carrying cases unless airports buy into state-of-the-art (and expensive) scanning devices.

But airports in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and San Jose, Calif., all plan on having Registered Traveler programs running by the end of summer. If nothing else, the Registered Traveler program will allow business travelers, who often make airports their office, a chance to get away from the plebeians. "There's just an innate desire to skip a line," Mr. Peck said.

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