Registered traveler programs – dreamed-up in the aftermath of 9/11 and promoted as security enhancements – are finally taking off.
Twenty U.S. airports host registered traveler kiosks and fast-track lanes, double the number of a year ago, and more are expected to sign up late this year and next.
Registered traveler (RT) programs entitle paying members to cut their wait times, get help with the mundane routines of airport security such as retrieving their belongings from the plastic bins past security and gain access to a wide range of travel extras, such as off-airport parking. Some members even use their encrypted high-tech cards to pass through security faster at NFL games.
In return, members pay from $100 to $200 a year, depending on the provider and level of service. Members provide basic personal information – name, address, driver’s license – get their photograph taken, give fingerprints and have their iris scanned. The data are encoded on a smart card used at airport kiosks and are supposedly safe from hackers, thieves and loss.
The Transportation Security Administration, which authorizes vendors and provides broad oversight, has certified seven companies to provide registered traveler programs. So far, only two are major players, Verified Identity Pass’s (STOCK QUOTE: VIP) Clear, the first and largest program, and FLO Corp. (STOCK QUOTE: FLRP).
Steven Brill, who founded American Lawyer magazine in 1979 and Court TV in 1991, started VIP in 2004. “In the post-911 era, we have to take new measures to protect ourselves and yet not destroy our way of life by strangling the free flow of people and commerce. Somehow, we have to find common sense solutions that don’t make everyone a suspect and create security bottlenecks everywhere we go,’’ Brill explains.
Registered traveler programs emphasize comfort and personalized service. And Clear card’s 135,000 paying members move through airport security 30% faster than non-members, according to VIP.
But the convenience of RT membership is starting to extend to elite status airline passengers. United Airlines (STOCK QUOTE: UAUA) and American Airlines (STOCK QUOTE: AMR) are rolling out fast-track lanes for their own high- status customers - people flying first-class, passengers in business class and customers with a lot of frequent flier miles.
This month, Southwest Airlines (STOCK QUOTE: LUV) became the latest airline to open dedicated airport security lines of its own - somewhat eroding RT programs’ claim to uniqueness. A business select boarding pass entitles travelers to tap Southwest’s new Fly-By program, which provides a designated security line and priority boarding.
“We believe that our customers will appreciate the added benefit priority security lanes will provide,’’ the airline said in a statement last week.
Recognizing airlines and airports are only part of their business, RT programs are adding member perks that have nothing to do with flying. Clear cardholders, for example, can pass through security more quickly at San Francisco 49ers football games, while FLO cardholders can get discounts on golf course rentals and help with lost passports or other documents.
What we have now are travel service companies that are moving away from the core idea of providing security to offer an increasingly rich suite of products for consumers who can afford to pay for them.
It’s a far cry from the understandable fixation on safety that gave rise to RT programs, but for frequent fliers – especially business travelers who often scurry to make connecting flights in dismal domestic airports – registered traveler programs can make life on the road a bit more comfortable.