Handy Machine May Speed Customs Process

This fall, two eastern airports will begin testing equipment designed to speed up the immigration process, as well as improve the accuracy of passport identifications. Infrared hand scans, to be tested at New York's Kennedy Airport and at Newark Airport immigration booths, take two to four seconds and are said to be harmless (no X-rays are used) and 99% accurate in determining whether a passport belongs to the person presenting it.

Here's how it works: A traveler walks up to an electronic inspection booth, inserts his passport into a document-reading machine, then puts his hand on a scanner that measures its geometry and reads such characteristics as the relationship of one finger to another. If the computer decides the passport and passport holder match, the admission gate automatically opens.

The technology, made by Recognition Systems of San Jose, has been installed (but is not yet operational) at San Francisco Airport as a security system for airport and airline personnel. If adopted by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for use at international airports, the hand scanners are expected to reduce the traveler's re-entry process to only about 30 seconds. Delays caused by passport checks can now take up to 90 minutes at Kennedy and LAX.

Initially, only frequent travelers (at least three international trips a year) may apply to the INS to be interviewed and have their "hand prints" recorded in order to participate in the testing program. Application forms will be distributed through airlines. Testing will take about six months at Kennedy and Newark.

Travel Quiz: Where is the highest airport in the world?

Baja Bits: Those planning a trip to sip cocktails in Baja should be aware that liquor sales will be banned in Tijuana, Ensenada, Tecate and Mexicali next weekend. Because of mayoral elections, the northern Baja cities will be legally dry Aug. 1, 2 and until noon Aug. 3.

Also in Baja, the Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau has a new toll-free number that provides bilingual general information about the city's cultural attractions, sporting events and restaurants and nightclubs, and answers questions regarding transportation or customs. In addition, by calling the 800 number it is possible to order a free brochure that lists the times, locations, ticket prices, phone numbers and other pertinent information about Tijuana attractions, hotels, restaurants and events. The number is (800) 252-5363 and it's open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Lightening in the Skies: American Airlines has added Weight Watchers meals to its in-flight menu roster. In addressing the growing demand for diet- and health-conscious meals in the air, American joins United, which recently introduced a new first-class menu that combines grilled meats and seafood with "lightened" sauces, and MGM Grand Air, which hires consulting chefs to create "spa" cuisine for its "Grand Light" program. Most U.S. airlines have long offered low-fat, low-cal meals to passengers who order them in advance, but United and MGM Grand Air present the usual lean-meat-and-veggie fare with first-class service, while American is apparently trying to increase economy passengers' satisfaction.

Quick Fact: New York-Los Angeles was the most heavily traveled route in the U.S. in 1991, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Air Transport Assn. Nearly 3 million passengers flew the route.

Tip Sheet for Travelers With Disabilities: The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has developed a tip sheet for travelers with disabilities to help them plan trips. Advice includes services that can be requested from travel agents, as well as standard airport practices for accommodating wheelchairs and other special equipment. To obtain the free information sheet, write to ASTA headquarters: Fulfillment Center, American Society of Travel Agents, 1101 King St., Alexandria, Va. 22314.

Winging It to Laughlin: Air West Airlines, a privately owned charter company, has begun daily nonstop flights to Laughlin, Nev., from Ontario and Burbank airports and will add flights from Long Beach, John Wayne and San Diego as soon as it receives government approval. Round-trip fares are $130 per person with no advance purchase required. Casino packages, with slightly reduce air fares, are also available.

Flying Frenzy: While the news won't astound most people, this spring's domestic airline half-price sale caused a substantial gain in air traffic. More than 24 million--or 2.4%--of adult travelers took advantage of the discounted fares, according to a US Travel Data Center survey. Somewhat more surprising, however, is that a good number of these travelers--9 million--said the sale dictated their travel plans, and they would not have purchased tickets if the airlines had not reduced prices.

New Digs for Execs: Move over all-suite hotels. The Scottsdale Plaza Resort is marketing what may be the next wave in lodging: private residences for business travelers for whom money is not a pressing issue. The resort is offering 10 private residences, which share a private pool and patio area, that are set apart from the rest of the complex. The 1,300- to 3,100-square foot Executive Residences have formal dining rooms and private living rooms. Discounted summer rates range from $550 to $1,800 daily through Sept. 13, then rise to $750 to $2,000 through December.

Comparatively Speaking: World's largest hotel chains, by number of rooms (1991 count): Holiday Inn (327,059); Hospitality Franchise Systems (288,990); Best Western International (266,123); Choice Hotels International (214,441); Accor/Pullman (212,500); Marriott Corp. (160,968); ITT Sheraton Corp. (131,348); Hilton Hotels Corp. (94,452); Forte (76,330); Hyatt Hotels/Hyatt International (74,801). (Source: Hotels magazine annual survey.)

Quiz Answer: In China, Tibet's La Sa (Lhasa) Airport is highest at 14,315 feet.

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