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Making Frequent Flyers Trusted Travelers

Before September 11, it took roughly five seconds on average to pass through an airport's security checkpoint. Today, it typically takes about three times as long at even the best-run facilities. Given the horrific toll of the terrorist attacks, of course, most people would probably say the increased scrutiny is well worth the time if it prevents another hijacking.

Not everyone is so forgiving, however. Many frequent flyers gripe that those extra seconds, multiplied by everyone trying to hurry to the departure gate, create huge lines that make air travel such a pain that they're inclined to jump in a car instead or forego trips altogether (see BW Online, 4/17/01, "The Intensifying Scrutiny at Airports").

As the immediacy of the attacks fades, Dirk C. McMahon, senior vice-president for customer service at Northwest Airlines, has heard such complaints grow louder. And McMahon may be in a position to do something for unhappy passengers. The 17-year Northwest veteran reports directly to CEO Richard H. Anderson, who, in turn, co-chairs an industry committee working on ways to improve airport security. Their notion: To create an express lane for prescreened flyers.

BIOMETRIC ID CARD. The "smart security" program would work like this: Anyone who wanted to avoid today's more rigorous airport security would authorize the government to do a background check. They also would allow it to take their thumbprint or an iris scan of one of their eyes.

If cleared by law enforcement, these flyers would receive a special card encrypted with their unique biometric ID. Then, at the airport, they could go to a reserved checkpoint and zip right through after their thumbprint or iris scan is matched to what's in the card. The per-person price for the card? About $100.

Northwest and fellow airlines in the Air Transport Assn. hope to submit proposals to the Transportation Security Administration and the Homeland Security Dept. by mid-July to conduct 90-day pilot projects with already-screened airline personnel by yearend. If the tests work out, McMahon predicts that Northwest, the nation's No. 4 carrier, could be offering trusted-traveler privileges to the general public by mid-2003. McMahon recently made his arguments for the speed pass in an interview with BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent Michael Arndt. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Why are you pushing this?

A: What we're trying to do is strike the appropriate balance between passenger convenience and security. Our customers -- specifically those people who fly a lot -- tell us they want a hassle-free airport experience. From our perspective, the right way to go about that is a smart security program. The passengers who go through that lane would be subjected to a lesser amount of security than exists today. We'd go to some pre-9/11 security vs. what we have today. It wouldn't bring you back to five seconds, but it would be a lot less than 17 seconds.

Q: You think it's worth taking the risk to lower security standards just so you can increase convenience for elite travelers?

A: I don't regard this as a risk. I regard this as smarter. I think that it's a more intelligent approach than the current, one-size-fits-all approach to security. We're not talking about no security here. We're talking about, for this segment of the traveling public, some type of pre-9/11 security.

Let's say there are 10 people who have to be screened and processed through an airport. And five of those guys, I have real good information on. I know who they are, and I've done a background investigation on them. And there are five other folks who I don't know anything about.

From my perspective, it makes more sense to subject the people I know a lot about to a lesser degree of security and the people I don't know anything about to a greater degree of security. It just makes a lot of sense to spend the finite amount of security resources we have on the folks who are unknown.

Q: So this is a way to develop that population of "known" people, if you will?

A: I think the best way to put it is like this: If you're looking for a potential terrorist, you're looking for a needle in a haystack. This effectively reduces the size of the haystack.

Q: Do you think we're making a mistake today by scrutinizing everybody the same way?

A: I've had what we call the full-meal deal: Fully wanded and through the most elaborate of security processes. We have employees who have already gone through background checks and who have the run of the place, on the ground and in the air, and they have to go through security. I'm sure you've seen pilots and flight attendants being fully wanded, etc.

Where would you rather have the finite security resources spent? Would you rather have that security agent wanding a pilot or somebody who you don't know anything about? I'd pick B.

Q: Do you get the sense from talking to customers that there's demand for this?

A: Absolutely. The utility of such a program would be for someone who flies a lot, a frequent flyer. If you're going to fly one or two times a years, you wouldn't go through that hassle of filling out a background investigation or going to get your biometrics taken. But if you're someone who's flying 6, 8, or 12 times a year, then you would see some utility. And there are a lot of people at that point.

Q: There's a question of fairness or equality here, isn't there? You're not being fair to the person who doesn't fly very often. He's got to go stand in that long line and take all that time to go through security, and he may not be any more risk than the frequent flyer who gets to whiz right through the airport.

A: That's sort of a business decision we would make, sort of like Home Depot has priority lines for their contractors. I understand why I have to wait in a longer line at Home Depot than Joe Siding Contractor. I'm spending $200 a year at Home Depot, whereas Joe Siding Contractor is spending in the thousands. It's clear why he gets priority.

Q: There's also a specter of Big Brother in all of this. Somebody is going to have my iris scan, and the next thing you know, the government's going to be able to track me down wherever I go. Big Brother really could be watching.

A: I think that's a personal choice that you've got to make. The key point is: This is voluntary. If there are people who have stuff they don't want to be made public, I don't know that they'd want to subject themselves to a big background investigation. From my perspective, I'd do it in a minute.

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