Tolls at Airports Could Speed Security Checks

Travelers may soon be given the option of paying a toll if they want to move through airport security checkpoints faster.

Just as state and local governments use tolls to make drivers pay for the roads they ride on, the federal Transportation Security Administration is considering charging travelers to cover the cost of a technology-intensive program that lets them pass more quickly through airport security checkpoints.

The TSA's Registered Traveler program would give travelers special access to security checkpoints and an exemption from most secondary screenings if they submit ahead of time to background checks and provide biometric identifying information.

The program is being tested at five airports - in Boston, Houston's George Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington's Reagan National.

The TSA plans to run a separate test at Orlando International Airport, allowing private companies to operate the program under federal supervision. The companies would charge participants an annual fee, estimated at $50 to $100, to cover their costs and turn a profit.

By charging participants, federal officials say, the government may be able to quickly roll out the program nationally at minimal cost to taxpayers.

"Passengers have indicated they would be willing to pay a fee to expedite the security process," said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the TSA in the Northeast.

Officials say the Orlando test should begin in the next several months. The TSA has held discussions with the Greater Orlando Airport Authority and a New York company called Verified ID Pass, which is headed by Steven Brill, who launched Court TV.

AirTran Airways has announced that it intends to participate in the Orlando test.

Unlike the five ongoing tests of the Registered Traveler program, which are restricted to frequent-flier customers of one airline at each airport, the pilot project in Orlando would be open to any traveler. The program might have special appeal for female travelers, who have complained about the intrusiveness of secondary screenings.

A privatized Registered Traveler program is likely to attract criticism. Privacy advocates have long raised concerns about the government's gathering detailed personal information about Americans, and those concerns probably would be heightened if access to that information were turned over to private companies.

A privatized program also may foster more grumbling at security checkpoints, from passengers who are not registered as speed-passers. The TSA and its security procedures are funded by all taxpayers.

Airlines already are allowed to give their best customers speedier access to security checkpoints. If the program is rolled out nationally, that same faster access may become available to any registered traveler willing to pay an annual fee. In effect, paying customers will be able to move to the front of the security line.

The goal of the Registered Traveler program is to narrow the focus of secondary screenings by eliminating passengers not considered risks. About 10,000 volunteers are participating in the five tests, most of them frequent-flier customers of the airlines involved.

Jay S. Rein, of Holliston, Mass., an American frequent flier who has been participating in the Registered Traveler program at Boston's Logan International Airport since it began in August, says travelers waiting in the regular security lines have definitely taken note of his quick access to security. "There were clearly people watching with envy," he said.

Once a Registered Traveler participant is verified using a fingerprint or iris scan, his or her boarding pass is stamped and the participant goes through security just like any other passenger. Registered Travelers are exempt, however, from random secondary screenings as long as they don't set off alarms going through security.

The chief drawback of the current test is that it is open to participants only at their home airports.