A hare has joined the tortoise in the race to bring so-called trusted traveler programs to US airports. At Orlando International, a private company called Verified Identity Pass Inc. is taking a lead role in a program that promises a speedier trip through airport security in return for an $80 fee. Industry observers say the entrance of businesses into a realm where the government has held the reins is sure to speed up the eventual rollout of an interoperable program nationwide, though concerns about privacy and profit- making could pose hurdles.

The tortoise, of course, is the Transportation Security Administration. Following congressional authorization, the agency last summer rolled out 90-day registered traveler pilot programs at five airportsLos Angeles, Minneapolis, Houston, Boston and Reagan National. Each used fingerprint and/or iris biometrics to both enroll and process members but different hardware and software from various equipment vendors. The idea was to find out which technologies worked best in varying operational environments.

In parallel, the government set out to develop minimum performance standards for the biometric-based equipment and even a preferred products list. Both efforts as yet are incomplete. Carter Morris, senior VP-transportation security policy for the American Assn. of Airport Executives, says, The TSAs done a great job establishing the pilots and testing the technologies, but now its time for an industry-driven approach.

AAAE along with seven founding airports and Daon, an identity management software provider, in July launched the Registered Travel Interoperability Program, an effort to leverage the governments work in the pilot programs and accelerate a nationwide rollout. While the consortium will push for TSA screening benefits and collaboration, an interoperable or seamless system needs to be airport and aviation industry driven and run outside of government, the organization said in a press release announcing the launch. Most importantly, the consortium members believe that the program needs to move forward operationally without further delay. Member airports so far include Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver, Reagan National, Dulles and Port Columbus, though Morris says a bunch more are ready to sign up.

Under the pilot programs, as many as 2,000 travelers flying certain airlines from each pilot airport were allowed to sign up for a free trial by providing authorities with their name, address, phone number, date of birth and samples of biometric identifiers. TSA then performed a security assessment of the volunteers including a check of law enforcement and intelligence data sources and outstanding criminal warrants. Those that were accepted received a smart card containing a mathematical representation of their fingerprints and iris pattern and a unique code that would be compared to a centralized member database during check-in.

At the airport, participants get a somewhat accelerated security lane with primary screening in placemetal detector for the passenger and x-ray scan for the carry-onbut no secondary screening such as pat-down, luggage search and explosives check. At the moment, the Achilles heel of the pilots from a passenger perspective is that each program works at only one airport. TSA earlier this year extended the five pilot programs through September to study how to make cards work at multiple airports, a process called interoperability.

The interoperability quandary is particularly troublesome for a program that travelers have to pay for. In Orlando, VIP Inc., created by entrepreneur Steven Brill, is charging $80 to join a program he calls Clear. TSA capped Brill at 30,000 members for the six-month to one-year trial. To become the sixth pilot airport, Orlando signed a memorandum of agreement with the agency earlier this year and issued a request for proposals. On June 1 it selected the VIP/Lockheed Martin team as the service provider.

Along with the entrance of private industry, this pilot is unique in that it is financially advantageous for the airport. Under the contract with VIP, Orlando will get between 23% and 29% of the enrollment fees for the first 30,000 travelers and 18%-22.5% after that, assuming TSA decides to expand the program. In addition, it will get 2.5% of all enrollment and renewal revenues that the vendors receive from their registered traveler programs at other airports.

The fees may or may not cover the costs airports might have to pay to host an interoperable trusted traveler service. Brill estimates that each location will need an investment of about $2 million. Expansion is a key part of his business plan: He currently has about 5,000 travelers signed up at Orlando and is banking on a nationwide rollout.

To join Clear, travelers enroll online but have to travel to the airport to have their biometricsa digital snap of all 10 fingerprints and an iriscaptured by one of one airside and three landside kiosks provided by ARINC. At the security checkpoint, approved members present either their fingerprints or iris for verification on a smaller ARINC kiosk. VIP also has mobilized a kiosk and is taking it on the road, primarily to business centers around Orlando in a search for travelers who may want to join the program.

Reviews have been largely positive, but somewhat cautious. The Orlando version of Registered Traveler includes what I think is a fascinating and welcome innovation: The use of a privately issued identification card, said Jim Harper, director-information policy studies at the Cato Institute, at a June 9 congressional hearing on the topic. Unlike the governments pilot programs, where members privacy rights can be changed by Congress and federal agencies, Harper says Clear provides an enforceable contract between the customer and the company and is more protective of the data. The Cato Institute is a think tank that promotes limited government intrusion into civil liberties.

Critics say the downside of the Orlando project relates to the intersection of security and profit. Registered Traveler is, and must remain, a security program, said Robert D. Isom, senior VP-customer service at Northwest Airlines, at the June 9 hearing. We have some real concerns about the current state of the program, and we question whether the program should even be continued.

At the root of Isoms concerns is that Public Private Partnerships like Orlandos, an evolution TSA supports, blur the line between security and business. He says the new-breed PPPs are attempting to link trusted traveler programs with perks like new airport lounge areas, valet parking and discounts at airport stores in order to convince travelers to sign up and that financial paybacks to airports could skew the public policy debate. Morris says airports naturally will differ in how they approach the programs but all will want at least to recover the costs of installing the equipment, costs not likely to be paid by the government. Most people say well need [PPPs] to bring efficiency to this, he says. Whether the negatives will cause the hare to be distracted and lose ground to the tortoise is unclear. Airlines like Northwest are rooting for the slow, deliberate contender. Airports, on the other hand, might prefer the newcomer, or the least the newcomers theory, in order to pay for the programs and at the same time meet security objectives and give weary passengers an alternative to the status quo security lines.