HERE’S the hope: You pay nearly $100 and undergo a background check to become a Registered Traveler. Then you zip through airport security.
Here’s the truth: You may save time, but you’ll still have the hassle because many features of this new program don’t yet work. And that raises this question: Is Registered Traveler ready for prime time?
My experience in San Jose, six days after the program made its West Coast debut on Jan. 23, suggests it’s not -- at least not yet.
On my visit, special lanes for Registered Travelers were open for business. But no one was using them because the enrollees were still waiting for access cards.
Check-in kiosks to prescreen members were open too. But the shoe scanners and explosives detectors weren’t activated, so members had to go through the same security process as everyone else, removing coats and shoes and taking laptops out of bags.
Karla May, a hardware engineer from Hermosa Beach, spoke for many fliers I interviewed that day in this laptop-lugging, Blackberry-tapping transit hub of the Silicon Valley.
“It doesn’t sound like they have their act together,” said May, who flies about twice a month on business and said she was not interested in signing up for Registered Traveler.
The much-delayed program, overseen by the Transportation Security Administration but run by private vendors, is going nationwide after 18 months of testing in Orlando, Fla. It is enrolling thousands of members -- more than 3,000 in San Jose alone as of last week -- and gaining momentum, but problems also abound. Among them:
* Card delays. In San Jose, an encryption glitch in processing applications delayed delivery of enrollees’ cards, which they need to log onto the kiosks, said Steven Brill, who heads Verified Identity Pass Inc. in New York, a start-up company that runs the program in Orlando, San Jose and several other cities. (Enrollees have since begun receiving cards.)
Meanwhile, in Orlando, more than 30,000 members are being issued new cards because the old ones wouldn’t work at other airports.
* Limited availability. As of last week, only airports in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York (JFK), Orlando and San Jose operated Registered Traveler; Newark, N.J., was starting enrollment. At some sites, not all terminals participate.
* Industry opposition. The Air Transport Assn., an airline trade group in Washington, D.C., that once advocated Registered Traveler, now says the program diverts limited TSA resources from more broadly focused screening efforts. The association has lobbied airports against adopting it.
LAX is among the sites that have held off implementing the program. Airport officials have cited the transport association’s arguments and a lack of space for new checkpoint lanes.
* Privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union sees “substantial privacy and civil liberties problems” with Registered Traveler, said Timothy Sparapani, the group’s legislative counsel for privacy rights. He said the program might rely on flawed databases to evaluate applicants.
The TSA has said it will keep the data secure and provide a system for applicants to resolve disputes over eligibility.
* Customer confusion. Most of the nine San Jose fliers I interviewed about the program had only a vague idea of what it was.
“It’s not very well advertised,” said Dan Spencer, who lives outside Denver and travels every six weeks as a sales representative for an electronics manufacturer.
And each Registered Traveler vendor assigns its own name to the program, adding to the obscurity. Verified Identity Pass Inc. calls it Clear (www.flyclear.com). Unisys, a technology company in Blue Bell, Pa., that plans to launch its version by mid-March at Nevada’s Reno-Tahoe airport, calls it rtGO (www.rtgocard.com).
Some fliers said they either quickly navigated security without special access or had adapted to the hassle.
“If you travel five days a week, you know the game,” said Jay Seggetti, a Santa Monica producer of TV commercials who said his work takes him away from home about 20 days per month.
“I can spot the line that’s going to have problems.”
Other regulars, such as David Sapoznikow, a market researcher from Seattle, said their elite frequent flier status already entitled them to use special security lines at some airports.
But a couple of San Jose travelers expressed enthusiasm after I described the program.
“I’d sign up for it in a heartbeat,” said Kurt Richarz, a technology salesman from Boulder, Colo., who flies twice a week. “If you save 30 or 40 minutes, it’s worth it.”
Big companies are looking into it too, at least for key employees. While I was at the airport, a representative of Google was touring the Clear kiosks.
Caleb Tiller, spokesman for the National Business Travel Assn. in Alexandria, Va., which represents about 2,700 corporate travel managers and providers, said demand for the program had been “really high” in Orlando.
Dismissing start-up glitches as “hiccups on the way,” Tiller predicted that hundreds of thousands of travelers would eventually sign up as the program spread to more airports, making it “exponentially more valuable.”
In an interview, Brill of Verified Identity Pass Inc. defended his decision to roll out Registered Traveler before all the technology was approved.
“If you build a house,” he said, “wouldn’t you install the Internet lines before you get a computer?”
He added that his company was working closely with the TSA to obtain needed clearances.
“Our goal is to keep adding to the steps that people don’t have to take to get through security,” he said.
Meanwhile, program members in Orlando, where Monday morning waits at regular TSA checkpoints recently averaged less than 15 minutes but ranged up to 37 minutes, can rely on clearing security in one to five minutes, Brill said.
Predictability is the key, he added.
In the future, he said, Registered Travelers should be able to skip some security steps too. Among them:
* Removing shoes. When members sign on to program kiosks in Orlando, detectors scan their shoes for explosives and weapons, allowing most to keep them on.
But about a third are flagged to remove their footwear anyway, Brill said, because the metal detectors cannot distinguish between weapons and harmless shoe components. Until this problem is fixed, the detectors are turned on only in Orlando, he said.
* Removing coats. A kiosk device called an Itemiser FX, designed to detect trace explosives on fingers, was undergoing “final calibration and testing” in TSA’s laboratories, Brill said. When approved, it should clear Registered Travelers to keep their outer garments on.
* Taking laptops out of bags. Verified Identity Pass has plans to calibrate kiosk equipment to remotely evaluate laptop computers and briefcases for security threats.
When will these wonders materialize?
Brill estimated several weeks for the Itemiser FX and the next-generation shoe scanner and up to a year for the laptop scanner, depending how TSA testing proceeds.
“They make the security decisions,” he said. “We don’t.”
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez declined to provide a timetable.
“We don’t get into dates or time frames,” he said. “We don’t want to mislead companies or set up false expectations for customers.”
Here in Silicon Valley, which may be the least technophobic spot on the planet, travelers are still waiting for answers.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Under the new screening system, Registered Travelers go through security in designated lanes, using prescreening kiosks. In theory, this will mean shorter waits.
1) Registered Traveler enters separate security lane, shows ID, member card and boarding pass.
2) He or she walks to kiosk, inserts a member card and places finger on reader or looks into iris camera.
3) Machine confirms identity, does preliminary checks.
4) Traveler takes receipt and gives to a “concierge.”
5) Concierge guides traveler through usual TSA screening, which would be streamlined if kiosk has already prescreened for weapons and explosives.
Note: The process may vary by airport and kiosk vendor. As of the Travel section’s deadline Tuesday, implementation of some features was pending TSA approval.
Source: Verified Identity Pass Inc. Graphics reporting by Jane Engle