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Lawmakers note drawbacks of 'registered traveler' system

Lawmakers on a House Homeland Security subcommittee expressed dissatisfaction Thursday with the early results of an experimental program designed to accelerate airport security lines for passengers who have undergone background checks and biometric screenings.

The Registered Traveler program has been being tested since last year in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Washington. The pilot program has been capped at 10,000 participants and does not apply to all carriers at each of the airports.

Under the current program, registered members are granted access to separate, shorter lines at security checkpoints, where they use biometric-based identification cards and take iris scans to pass through security.

While lawmakers at the hearing identified privacy and market issues as concerns, several said they still are not convinced the program does what it is designed to do: reduce inconveniences for frequent travelers and increase the efficiency of airport security.

"It's really a lame program the way it's been implemented by TSA [the Transportation Security Administration]," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. He added that he does not believe much could be learned unless the program is implemented nationally.

Several members also noted that registered travelers still are subjected to removing their shoes and coats and having their laptops inspected. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., even joked in his opening statement that he recently purchased a special pair of shoes so he does not have to remove them at security checkpoints.

Robert Isom, the senior vice president for customer service at Northwest Airlines, warned the committee not to let Registered Traveler stray from its original mission. He questioned proposals to offer ancillary services such as lounge areas, valet parking and shopping discounts in order to attract participants.

"It would be a mistake to let the Registered Traveler security program be transformed into a club membership organization," Isom said.

Later this month, Orlando International Airport is scheduled to launch a private program outside the Registered Traveler system. Officials plan to issue ID cards to users who pay $80 annually and pass background investigations. Passengers still will have to be cleared by TSA, but the ID cards will be made by Verified Identity Pass, a New York-based firm.

Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said he supports the idea of such private security partnerships because it is a "step closer toward a heterogeneous ID system," which he said would better protect the privacy of registered passengers.

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