Frequent fliers will be able to avoid extra security inspections at airports by submitting to background checks and paying a fee as part of an experiment that begins in Minneapolis later this month, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said on Wednesday.
Congress ordered the agency to come up with such a program, called "registered traveler," more than two years ago when it created the TSA in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
Acting TSA Administrator David Stone said the agency didn't sacrifice security for the experiment.
"This pilot program will provide frequent travelers with the means to expedite the screening experience without compromising on security," Stone said in a statement.
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said the $3.78 million pilot program took too long to develop and is too expensive.
"There are plenty of examples around the world of successful frequent traveler and airport secure-access programs," Mica said. "They spend money on wheels that have already been invented."
All U.S. airports are becoming more crowded now that air travel has fully rebounded from Sept. 11, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr. In the next three months, 200 million people are expected to fly, 12 percent more than a year ago. At the same time the federal force of airport screeners has been cut by 20 percent due to budget constraints.
The program will be offered to frequent fliers who travel at least once a week in selected markets. Through the summer it will be tested in four more airports: Boston, Washington's Reagan National, Houston, and Los Angeles.
Participants will give the TSA their name, address, phone number, birth date and "biometric identifier," including fingerprint and iris scan. That information will be matched against law enforcement and intelligence databases like the terrorist watch list. The passengers will also be checked for outstanding criminal warrants.
Once they've signed up, they can pass through a registered traveler lane at airport security checkpoints. They will still have to walk through the metal detector and have their carry-on bags screened for dangerous items. The advantage to the program is that registered travelers won't be taken aside for more intensive secondary screening, if they don't alarm the equipment.
Currently, passengers receive secondary screening if they set off the security devices or if they are selected through a system called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS.
CAPPS selects people who pay for their ticket with cash or only fly one way. It is largely viewed as ineffective. The TSA has been trying to replace it with CAPPS II, which would screen passengers by comparing the same personal information used in registered traveler — but without the biometric identifier — against commercial and government databases.
CAPPS II is stalled because airlines refuse to turn over passenger data for testing because they fear criticism that it would violate their customers' privacy.
"It allows those people who are registered to get through the airport faster and it allows those people who are not registered to have fewer people in those lines," Tim Anderson, deputy director of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, told CBS News.
If the pilot program works, Orr reports it may be opened to all travelers who are willing to provide personal information and pay a fee.
"The idea, it's good and I'm sure a lot of people will go for it, especially business travelers," said passenger Bernel Thomas. "They want to get there and get there fast."