WASHINGTON – Frequent fliers will be able to avoid extra security inspections at airports by submitting to background checks as part of an experiment that begins in Minneapolis later this month, the Transportation Security Administration (search) said on Wednesday.
Congress ordered the agency to come up with such a program, called "registered traveler," more than two years ago when it created the TSA in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
Acting TSA Administrator David Stone said the agency didn't sacrifice security for the experiment.
"This pilot program will provide frequent travelers with the means to expedite the screening experience without compromising on security," Stone said in a statement.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee (search), said the $3.78 million pilot program took too long to develop and is too expensive.
"There are plenty of examples around the world of successful frequent traveler and airport secure-access programs," Mica said. "They spend money on wheels that have already been invented."
The program will be offered to frequent fliers who travel at least once a week in selected markets. Through the summer it will be tested in four more airports.
Participants will give the TSA their name, address, phone number, birthdate and "biometric identifier," including fingerprint and iris scan. That information will be matched against law enforcement and intelligence databases like the terrorist watch list. The passengers will also be checked for outstanding criminal warrants.
Once they've signed up, they can pass through a registered traveler lane at airport security checkpoints. They will still have to walk through the metal detector and have their carry-on bags screened for dangerous items. The advantage to the program is that registered travelers won't be taken aside for more intensive secondary screening, if they don't alarm the equipment.
Currently, passengers receive secondary screening if they set off the security devices or if they are selected through a system called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (search), or CAPPS.
CAPPS selects people who pay for their ticket with cash or only fly one way. It is largely viewed as ineffective. The TSA has been trying to replace it with CAPPS II, which would screen passengers by comparing the same personal information used in registered traveler — but without the biometric identifier — against commercial and government databases.
CAPPS II is stalled because airlines refuse to turn over passenger data for testing because they fear criticism that it would violate their customers' privacy.
There won't be a charge to sign up for the experimental phase of the registered traveler program.
Northwest Airlines will offer the program beginning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In late July, the registered traveler program will be tested at Los Angeles International Airport with United Airlines. Continental Airlines will participate beginning in early August at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. By the end of August the program will be available for American Airlines customers at Boston's Logan International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.