The US Transportation Security Administration plans to start testing a registered traveler program at Boston's Logan International Airport next month that would exempt fliers from most secondary security screenings if they let the government do a background check.
The 90-day test initially will be confined to frequent fliers with American Airlines, but if it works well at Logan and at four other airports around the country, officials say it may be opened to all travelers. The program is going to be free during the test phase, but there may be a charge if it is expanded, officials said.
The goal is to make lines at airport screening checkpoints move quicker and to narrow the focus of more thorough secondary screenings by eliminating passengers not considered risks.
''We're looking for a needle in the haystack," said Ann Davis, a regional spokeswoman for the TSA. ''This program makes the haystack a little smaller."
Still, the potential benefits of the registered traveler program are fairly limited, both for travelers and the government.
Travelers who qualify will be exempt only from the random secondary screenings conducted by the TSA. They still will have to wait in line to go through the same basic screening as every other traveler, and they could undergo more thorough secondary screening if they set off the magnetometer or their carry-on bags look suspicious on the X-ray machines.
Davis said 12 to 15 percent of all air travelers currently are pulled aside for the random secondary screenings. She indicated that by reducing the pool subject to secondary screenings, the lines at security checkpoints may move faster. Secondary screenings take about three to five minutes.
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan Airport, lobbied aggressively to be included in the test phase of the program. The other participating airports and airlines include Minneapolis-St. Paul International (
EDS Corp. of Herndon, Va., is being paid $1.31 million to manage the test programs in Boston and Washington, while
Northwest already has solicited participants for the test at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and many lined up recently to sign up for the program.
Details on the test at Logan were still being developed at press time, but officials said American will try to solicit about 2,000 volunteers from a base of frequent fliers who fly out of Logan regularly. A spokesman for American said the solicitation letters were being prepared in anticipation of an Aug. 1 start-up for the test.
Participating travelers will probably be asked to come to Logan to sign up for the program. They will be asked to provide their name, address, date of birth, place of birth, and other personal identifying information. They also will be required to provide a fingerprint, retina scan, or both, biometric information that will be included on the registered traveler card issued.
Davis said the TSA will run the identifying information through its various terrorist and law enforcement databases to make sure the individual is not considered a security threat.
In that respect, the program is very similar to another program called Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System 2, or CAPPS 2, which the TSA is developing. That program would run similar identifying information on all passengers against various government databases to isolate passengers deserving closer scrutiny.
The CAPPS 2 program has been criticized by privacy advocates as a government attempt to start building a security database on Americans. TSA officials deny that, saying the identifying information would not be retained in a permanent database or used for other purposes.
Nevertheless, the voluntary registered traveler program is already generating some of the same concerns. Ken Schulman of Newton, for example, is a frequent flier who says he would not participate in the registered traveler program primarily because the occasional secondary security screenings to which he has been subjected have not been overly burdensome.
''I am also concerned about the larger 'invasion of privacy' issue," Schulman said. ''Quite frankly, I have concerns about the extent to which such detailed information may be used in these troubled times. At this point, I am more willing to endure the occasional hassle of longer wait times at security checkpoints and secondary screenings than participate in a program that I believe may be of questionable value and purpose."
Jay S. Rein of Holliston, an executive platinum member of American's frequent flier program, said he intends to sign up for the registered traveler program.
He said he has no problem providing information about himself if it helps security officials do their job. He said he has provided similar information in the past for other purposes, including when he signed up to be a soccer coach.
''I don't have a problem with it," Rein said. ''I'm ready to participate as soon as I can find out how."
Bruce Mohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.