Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Frequent fliers started getting their eyes and fingerprints scanned at two Washington-area airports yesterday for a fast track through security checkpoints.

Passengers now can have their fingerprints and irises digitally encoded into a Registered Traveler card at airport enrollment stations.

The card allows them to pass through special lanes at security checkpoints for faster access to flights at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The Registered Traveler program at the two airports is administered by Verified Identity Pass Inc. in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The New York company calls the program and card “Clear.”

Steven Brill, chief executive officer of Verified Identity Pass, said airports are just the beginning for the security cards. He envisions a much larger role for them to gain entry to government buildings, sports stadiums and other sites that use security checkpoints.

“Airports are the first, most visible instance of this,” Mr. Brill said.

Dulles and Reagan airports are the 14th and 15th airports to get the Clear cards. Orlando International Airport was the first, beginning in the summer of 2005.

Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials are considering adopting a Registered Traveler program, a spokesman said yesterday.

“We’re starting at airports because we see this is where the need is most obvious,” Mr. Brill said.

Verified Identity Pass is paying the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority a base fee of $500,000 a year to administer the Clear program at both airports. The company won the concessions contract through competitive bids.

Registered Traveler programs also are run by competitors Unisys Corp. in Reno, Nev., and Vigilant Solutions in Jacksonville, Fla.

Other Clear enrollment stations in the Washington area are operating in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill and the American Express Travel Service office at 1501 K St. NW. Travelers also can register online at flyclear.com.

The special airport security lanes are scheduled to open next month at Dulles and Reagan airports.

So far, about 102,000 travelers have registered for the program nationwide, including 2,500 in the Washington area.

“It’s been a major convenience,” said Ron Weiner, a recently retired industry association president, who acquired a Registered Traveler card in Orlando.

On one trip through the Orlando airport, Mr. Weiner said he bypassed more than 200 tourists in the regular security lanes by going through a special registered-traveler lane with only three persons ahead of him.

Travelers pay $128 a year for the cards after going through a less than half-hour enrollment procedure that includes digital scans of fingerprints and irises. The Transportation Security Administration stores the information and reviews it to ensure applicants are not on its own terrorist watch list and other criminal databases. Successful enrollees receive their cards in the mail about 10 days later.

Convenience was not on the mind of American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, who said when the program was announced that registering biometric information could constitute a government intrusion into the privacy of travelers. In addition, members of Congress expressed concern when the program was proposed that terrorists who are not on a government watch list could use the cards to bypass normal security procedures.

Mr. Brill said the cards do not eliminate security procedures; they just shorten the lines for Registered Travelers.

“Anyone who has a Clear card still goes through a metal detector,” Mr. Brill said.

One of the first travelers to enroll at Dulles yesterday was Mark Wohlgemuth, a hardware salesman from Ashburn, Va. Before going through a security checkpoint for a trip to Atlanta, he spent about 15 minutes typing his background information into a computer.

Travelers who present two government-issued identification cards with photos — most commonly a driver’s license and a passport — then can get the biometric scans.

Mr. Wohlgemuth described the intrusion of the screening procedure as minimal.

“It’s all government-issued information,” he said. “It’s pretty reasonable.”

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