As the number of airline passengers starts to soar with the temperature, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is finally taking a significant step toward speeding the security process for at least some flyers. Aviation sources tell TIME that this week the TSA will announce the launch of a three-month trial of its Registered Traveler program, which will start at five airports, beginning in Minneapolis--St. Paul and then in other cities, including Los Angeles and Houston. A sort of fast track for frequent flyers, the program aims to let approved passengers use less crowded lanes to the security checkpoints and possibly avoid such routine security measures as removing their shoes and coats. To gain that privilege, passengers must submit to an extensive background check, including searches of commercial and government databases. After being approved and paying a small annual fee (yet to be determined), they would be issued a card--containing a biometric identifier (a fingerprint, for example) and personal data--that shows they're entitled to the special security treatment.
The initiative comes not a moment too soon. Almost 200 million people are expected to fly this summer, a 12% increase from last year, yet the cash-strapped TSA has had to lay off thousands of screeners. Up to 15% of passengers are still being singled out for extra screening because of outdated parameters like buying a one-way ticket or paying in cash. The TSA has fumbled efforts to improve the screening procedures and carry out a new color-coded system that verifies the identity and assesses the risk of every passenger.
Critics of the pilot program doubt it will make the security process much easier for prescreened travelers. But airport officials are supportive. "We love the idea," says Tim Anderson, an executive director of the Minneapolis--St. Paul International Airport. "It helps move us away from treating everyone the same and searching for the needle in the haystack."
--By Sally B. Donnelly