Registered Traveler program struggles for support

For John Gogarty, a public relations executive in Parsippany, getting through security at Orlando International Airport is no different from driving through the Holland Tunnel. He just wants to get through fast.

Gogarty, who uses E-ZPass when he drives, didn't hesitate to fork over $99 for membership in Orlando's equivalent of an E-ZPass lane - a program called Clear that allows travelers to speed through a special security line.

"If you're traveling during peak times, the security lines can be a mile deep at the Orlando airport," Gogarty said. "From a business traveler's perspective, it is a blessing."

But a year after the roll-out of the federal government's "registered traveler program," Gogarty is one of a tiny minority of airline passengers who have been able to take advantage of it. The program is sputtering, with only a fraction of the country's airports offering E-ZPass-like security lanes run by private companies and manned by Transportation Security Administration personnel.

At Newark Liberty International Airport, the program is available only in Terminal B despite efforts to establish it in the larger and busier Terminal C.

A handful of companies have launched programs with names such as Clear and FLO. But to set up shop, the companies need the endorsement of airlines and airports, and most of them have resisted the private programs. The TSA, the government agency in charge of airport security, also has resisted them.

During the summer, TSA director Kip Hawley told Congress he believes the registered traveler program is a low priority because it doesn't do enough to prevent terrorism. The agency has yet to approve private companies' high-tech screening devices.

All this has left services such as Clear, which was founded by entrepreneur Steven Brill and today is the leading registered traveler program, struggling to make a case for its service.

"Brill is trying to have a program that speeds up the process; it's just not working out that way," business travel expert Joe Brancatelli said. "TSA has a 'not-invented-here' mentality. They have tried everything to stop it."

The registered traveler program has its roots in 9/11. Within months of the terrorist attacks in 2001, Congress passed legislation authorizing the TSA to implement security screening procedures at airports.

Buried in the legislation, a provision called "enhanced security measures" authorized the creation of a "trusted traveler program" to screen low-risk passengers.

In theory, the registered traveler program would ensure the new security requirements did not create chaotic logjams in airports, by weeding out frequent, pre-screened flyers who pay for background checks and special identification cards.

But as private companies like Clear have rolled out programs, they have encountered major setbacks. The TSA rejected strategies for streamlining the security process, including shoe-scanning technology and biometric subscriber cards.

The technologies don't meet TSA standards, said spokesman Lara Uselding. Another objection by the TSA is to the idea of diverting its personnel to the private lanes at the risk of adding to the delays for the general flying public.

Without TSA approval of advanced equipment, registered travelers receive the benefit only of shorter lines. They still have to show government-issued photo IDs. They still have to remove their shoes and backpacks, empty their pockets and pass through the same screening equipment as non-registered travelers.

Despite the hurdles, Clear, a part of Verified Identity Pass Inc., says it has landed 85,000 subscribers and has just started making money in Orlando. Brill, who is known for starting CourtTV and American Lawyer, said he remains undeterred by the setbacks.

"I have some background in starting new kinds of businesses that never existed before and people say can't be done," Brill said.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travelers Coalition, has worked as a consultant to both Clear and FLO (short for Fast Lane Option Corp.) and says the future of the registered traveler program may hinge on forging relationships with major airlines and offering other travel-related services to fliers.

"It's a brand new industry and one that isn't going away," Mitchell said. "It's been a struggle, but the fact of the matter is, it's law."

However, Uselding says: "The registered traveler program is viewed as noncritical by the TSA. It is not a mandated program."

While Clear has spent the past year battling the federal agency, Brill's leading rival, FLO, has been planning for an aggressive ramp-up in 2008.

Luke Thomas, a vice president at FLO, said the slow growth of fast-lane security screening may be the result of false expectations. "Some of the projections were grossly exaggerated," Thomas said of the timetables.

The providers need to have the sponsorship of an airline or an airport operator. Without the support of the major airlines, the registered traveler providers have been squeezed out of bustling airport terminals, including Terminal C of Newark Liberty.

Continental, which runs the terminal, said it has kept Clear out because it already provides an exclusive TSA security line, for members of its Elite program.

But Gogarty, who describes himself as a loyal Continental customer, said the airline's Elite flier status doesn't provide the same convenience.

On a recent flight about to leave Newark, Gogarty said, Continental announced boarding for Elite members and a crowd of passengers lined up. "There were only four people left," he said. "It seemed like the whole plane was Elite.

"When you show your Clear card in Orlando, you're going to the front of the line," he said. "In Newark, you're still waiting in line. Even at the Elite line, there's still a wait."