Program quickens the way to gate

The program's participants must pass a background check and pay a fee to take part.
WASHINGTON -- Airline passengers can't escape the headaches of the new age of air travel: long lines at checkpoints, confusion over security restrictions, lost luggage. But some airports are trying to ease the aggravation.
A new travel program is under consideration at some airports to quicken the way to the gate.
And security officials, aware of checkpoint inconveniences, are constantly mulling refinements in procedures.
But what does the new year hold for your trip to the airport?
In interviews with officials at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and industry leaders, The Washington Post assesses what possible changes lie ahead for the traveler.
More than a dozen airports are expressing interest in the Registered Traveler program, an initiative that allows pre-screened passengers who pay an annual fee to breeze through security. The moves come as the TSA recently announced that it would allow the program to expand beyond the one airport, in Orlando, Fla., where it now operates.
The program works by allowing participants, who have passed a background check, to move quickly through a special kiosk area and then through TSA checkpoints. It costs about 100 a year to join the program ( 28 goes to the TSA). Participants' identities are verified through a biometrics card that contains digital scans of their fingerprints or retinas.
The main benefit: reliable and consistent wait times of about 1 minute to 5 minutes, said Steven Brill, chief executive of Verified Identity Pass, which runs the operation at Orlando's airport. More than 30,000 people have signed up to participate there, Brill said.
In coming weeks, Brill said his company plans to open Registered Traveler kiosks at four other airports, John F. Kennedy International in New York, Indianapolis International, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International and San Jose International Airport in California.
About 5,000 people have paid the annual fee to join the program at those airports, Brill said.
Toe-tapping and finger-drumming at the checkpoint will not cease any time soon. But TSA officials say the average wait to get through security during peak times has dropped in recently because of a public-education campaign and better staffing.
In mid-August, the TSA banned most gels and liquids from carry-on bags after British police said they had uncovered a plot to blow up airliners with liquid bombs. In September, TSA officials eased those restrictions, allowing small amounts of gel and liquid toiletries onto planes if they could fit inside small plastic bags.
That move snarled security lines as passengers and screeners tried to figure out the new rules. Worried that confusion about the rules was causing the increase, TSA launched a publicity campaign before the Thanksgiving travel crunch to alert people to the changes. The agency also beefed up staffing at checkpoints to handle the throng of travelers.
In the first few weeks of last month, the average peak wait time nationally has dropped to 11 minutes from 13 minutes in October, officials said.
The security measures also affected how airlines coped with baggage. After the initial ban in August, the number of checked bags rose by more than 20 percent. That has since settled down to 15 percent above pre-ban levels, TSA officials said.
Airlines are not losing as many bags as they did in August and September, according to the most recent data released by the federal government. But they are still mishandling far more bags than they did last year.
Airlines mishandled nearly 400,000 bags, or 7.5 per 1,000 fliers, in October, the last month for which statistics are available. That is up from the 4.96 per 1,000 they lost or misplaced in October 2005.
There is no end in sight to the ban on gels and liquids from passenger cabins, according to the TSA. Officials say they are excited about a hand-held device that can help them detect liquid explosives in a container-by-container analysis. The device would allow screeners to verify that bottles contain medicine or breast milk without opening them, speeding the checkpoint process without spoiling the liquids, officials said. The TSA's top official, Kip Hawley, said the device, built by ICx Nomadics, was recently tested at an airport in New Mexico and seems to be "very promising."
"We will be able to quickly ascertain if something contains explosives without opening it," Hawley said.
But despite testing at laboratories, the government has not found a device that can detect liquid explosives in carry-on bags. That means the TSA is unlikely to allow large containers of liquids and gels back into airplane cabins before the end of 2007, Hawley said.
A machine that scans shoes for explosives, allowing passengers to keep their footwear on, has been approved for use in Registered Traveler lanes.

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