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Airport Test Pre-Screens Frequent Flyers

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

For a small fee and a background check, you, too, can go to the front of the security line, at least at Orlando International Airport. That's the site of a new program to speed security for some airline passengers so that authorities can focus their attention on those they know little about. The Bush administration is trying to decide whether to expand such registered traveler programs, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

Unidentified Woman #1: In here, please. Come on. Keep on moving.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

On a busy summer afternoon in Orlando, hordes of passengers balance suitcases, laptops and shopping bags as they begin the grueling first stage of their journey, the trip through the terminal and into security.

Unidentified Man #1: Gates one through 59 got to wait at the end of the line.

FESSLER: Harried travelers are directed to a cue that at this time of day extends far into the terminal. So far, it's hard to see the end.

Unidentified Man #2: Fifteen.

Unidentified Man #1: Fifteen, that's the line over there.

Unidentified Man #2: Fifteen.

Unidentified Man #1: Fifteen. One through 59, the line is over there.

FESSLER: Many will have to wait 15, 20, even 30 minutes to get to the actual checkpoint with its own set of frustrations.

Unidentified Man #3: Change, keys, coins, cell phones come out of your pockets. Place it in your bag or in your purse. Laptops come out of the bag, go in the bin by themselves.

FESSLER: For some, this is the price of good security, but for others it makes no sense. Why pay billions of dollars to thoroughly screen the same people over and over, knowing that most pose no threat at all?

Unidentified Woman #2: OK. Next, we're going to do both your thumbs. When the light turns green, both thumbs down, like that. OK.

FESSLER: That's where the registered traveler program comes in. Andrea Garcia(ph) works for CLEAR registered traveler, a new public/private experiment that began here in June. She's signing up frequent traveler Morry Moy(ph), who has to submit a bunch of personal information, including two forms of ID and fingerprints. She also needs an iris scan.

Unidentified Woman #3: All right.

Unidentified Woman: (From Recorded Message) Please move a little closer. Please move to the left.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FESSLER: The next step for Moy will be a background check by the Transportation Security Administration. If she's not on any lists of known or suspected terrorists or otherwise considered to be a threat, she'll soon get a plastic ID card. That allows her onto a special security line, which right now in Orlando is completely empty. She'll still go through TSA screening, but Moy hopes the convenience for her and her tennis-playing son will be well worth the $80 annual fee.

Ms. MORRY MOY (Frequent Traveler): We travel a lot for his tournaments, and we're just in and out of the airport, you know, probably two or three times a month during the year, once a week in the summer for his tournaments, and we hope it'll save us some time.

FESSLER: That's why about 6,000 people have signed up so far, says businessman Steven Brill. His company, Verified Identity Pass, has joined TSA and the airport to conduct the pilot program, which Brill hopes will someday be extended to millions of travelers. He says everyone, even those who don't participate, can benefit.

Mr. STEVEN BRILL (Verified Identity Pass): If the security people can spend more of their time on people who haven't been prescreened, we're all safer. The second thing they get out of it is, when this program works and works well, all the lines move faster.

FESSLER: He says it's like the automatic toll paying services now used on highways. But not everyone thinks the benefits here are so clear-cut. Right now, registered travelers still have to remove their shoes and coats and take our their laptops. Although, they usually avoid more thorough secondary screening. Christopher Bidwell handles security issues for the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BIDWELL (Air Transport Association): TSA has not really succinctly outlined what the specific security benefits are. I mean, at the time when there are long lines, obviously there's some utility but, I mean, there's got to be additional benefits on and beyond just being placed in the front of the line.

FESSLER: Especially if the program expands to the point where registered traveler lines are just as long as the regular ones. Justin Oberman, assistant administrator of TSA, says the agency is watching the Orlando project, as well as five other more limited TSA programs, to determine whether registered travelers should continue and how. So far, he thinks the program shows great promise.

Mr. JUSTIN OBERMAN (Assistant Administrator, TSA): We agree that there are minimal changes now to how registered travelers are screened and that before we would decide to expand the program, we'd need to take a look at whether that makes sense.

FESSLER: Or whether there's another way to improve airport screening. One concern is that if registered travelers are allowed to pass too easily through security, there might be a gap that terrorists will want to exploit. That worries traveler Barry Elkins(ph), despite his aggravation with waiting on long lines.

Mr. BARRY ELKINS (Traveler): To be honest with you, if somebody was a terrorist and wanted to blow up a plane and make it easy through security, they might pay the 80 bucks anyhow. So I don't see what difference it makes.

FESSLER: The issue, officials say, is striking the right balance between security and convenience. But many here in Orlando, like cosmetics trainer Maria Morales of Miami, have little doubt which side they'd come down on. Morales doesn't care how much personal information she has to give the government.

Ms. MARIA MORALES (Cosmetics Trainer): I want to do that. I want to be scanned so they can let me go speedy. I live on a plane. Every week we travel. So if I--I've been dreaming for something like this.

FESSLER: Morales says she'll sign up in a flash if and when registered traveler comes to her hometown.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.