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Registered Traveler Programs Return, but They Still Don't Look Like Viable Businesses

[This is a guest post by Benét J. Wilson.]
The Registered Traveler (RT) program, which was supposed to make security screening faster and easier for travelers, has to date been anything but effective. It seemingly rose from the ashes Aug. 16 when Indianapolis International Airport became the first to bring it back -â€" using vendor iQueue â€"- following the abrupt demise of Verified Identity Pass's Clear RT program in June 2009. Also rising from the ashes is Clear, whose assets were purchased by Alclear LLC. With all these programs coming back, it once again raises the question of whether or not these programs are commercially viable. I'm skeptical for a number of reasons.

The original idea for a trusted traveler program goes back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Overnight, control of airport security checkpoints went from screeners hired by the airlines to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). During that transition, airports experienced unusually long security lines, and Congress included provisions for a "trusted traveler" program in the 9/11 Act to help. Under a 90-day pilot program that began at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in July 2004, travelers agreed to submit personal information and biometrics to prove identity, and in exchange, they would have access to a special line that would make security quicker and easier.

The program then transitioned over to what was called a public-private partnership, with Orlando International Airport launching the program in July 2005. At its peak, 21 airports had RT programs with three vendors -â€" Clear, RTgo and Vigilent. But none of the vendors were ever able to get a foot hold in major airports including Miami, Chicago O'Hare, Houston Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Detroit, to name a few.

And now that RT is back, the question still keeps popping up -â€" is registered traveler just a glorified premium traveler line program? Back in 2007, former Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley told Congress that taxpayer resources are best applied to more critical needs than RT, noting that the program isn't an effective tool against terrorists without criminal backgrounds.

Originally, RT vendors were required to collect biographical information from travelers and TSA was supposed to vet for security threats. But once the 20-airport pilot program ended back in July 2009, TSA washed its hands of the program, saying the program "transitioned to a business model offered by the private sector in partnership with airports and airlines, noting it was no longer involved in the collection of biometrics or RT background checks. The agency also no longer accepted RT cards as a primary form of ID at security checkpoints, requiring travelers to have acceptable forms of government ID. And at some airports, there were reports that RT customers were put at the back of the security line after initial screening.

Indianapolis' iQueue program is not using the biometric function of its RT card because no one is processing the information. The new Clear program has indicated that it will use biometrics on its card, but that leaves two questions â€"- who will process that information, and why have it if TSA doesn't recognize it as a form of identification?

iQueue and a new player -â€" Emeryville, Ca.-based JetLanes -â€" have decided that they will offer premium lines for travelers without the biometric function. It was explained to me this way: a Continental Airlines OnePass Gold member may not have access to a premium line at airports outside the airlines' main facilities. Having an RT line allows that member the premium experience they expect. But is that enough of a business justification to bring the program back? And will you pay the $169 for iQueue or $197 for the new Clear?

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Benét J. Wilson is the online managing editor for McGraw-Hill's Aviation Week business aviation channel. She is also writes about airports and security for Aviation Daily and the Things With Wings blog.

Photo via Flickr user .schill, CC 2.0