WASHINGTON — International travelers will soon be able to zip through JFK Airport with the blink of an eye.
The airport will be home to a new pilot program that uses high-tech eye scans to speed pre-registered passengers through security and customs checkpoints.
"Our vision is to enhance our security and facilitate the legitimate flow of trade and travel to and from the U.S.," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced yesterday in the Netherlands — a country that has used a similar eye-scan program since 2001.
"Some say you can't achieve both at the same time, but we are beginning to prove the skeptics wrong," added Ridge in one of his final official acts as the nation's security chief. "We can and must achieve both these goals."
Travelers who voluntarily enroll in the eye-scan program must undergo an extensive background check, including criminal history reviews, fingerprinting and a face-to-face interview with a homeland security official.
Once approved, they'll receive a special "smart card" that holds their passport and iris details.
When they arrive at JFK, the pre-approved passengers can skip the long lines at customs and head straight to special kiosks, plug in their smart card and have their eyes scanned.
Provided their eyes match the records held in the smart card, the travelers can grab their bags and enter the country "without routine Customs and Border Protection."
Ridge said there are "no plans" to charge travelers who take part in the eye-scan program. The Dutch counterpart program forces travelers to cough up about $130 a year for the privilege of skipping passport checkpoints.
The eye-scan program will be open to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as foreigners who frequently travel to America.
It aims to cut down on the waiting time for the many of the 6 million travelers who pass through JFK each year.
Ridge said a fingerprinting program already in place to speed frequent travelers and truckers through checkpoints along the Mexican and Canadian borders — including the crossings at Lake Champlain and Buffalo — "has given us the confidence" to move forward with the JFK iris scans.
With the success of the fingerprinting program at the borders — known as US-VISIT — and now the launch of the iris scanning, Ridge is urging the United States to rely more heavily on biometrics rather than paper documents to assure a person's identity.
He's also calling to include a citizen's fingerprints on his or her American passport — a move Ridge hopes would force many foreign countries to do the same.
"If we're going to ask the rest of the world to put fingerprints on their passports, we ought to put our fingerprints on our passports," Ridge said.
"Now, culturally, historically, there are a lot of reasons that some countries are averse or very reluctant to give people finger scans," Ridge said.
He said by offering assurances that use would be limited and benefits significant, "we could get the world to move more quickly toward a common international standard."
Ridge assured personal-privacy hawks that the fingerprints and iris records will be tightly guarded — a designated homeland security official will be assigned to make sure the information doesn't fall into the wrong hands, he said.
Ridge is stepping down as the nation's first homeland security secretary by Feb. 1. President Bush this week tapped federal judge Michael Chertoff to fill his shoes.