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NWA first to test quick-screen plan


Liz Fedor,  Star Tribune June 27, 2004

Thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers willing to undergo background checks, fingerprinting and eye scans will get the chance to clear security more quickly at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Beginning Monday, Northwest's Platinum Elite frequent fliers can enroll in a "registered traveler" test program. It's the first of its kind in the country, but it's an idea that Eagan-based Northwest has been advocating since late 2001, when it recognized the inefficiency of extensively screening customers who do not pose security threats.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been funneling passengers through one security system that can single out anybody for additional scrutiny.

"We fully support a high level of security for our airplanes and we support the TSA's efforts," Gary Fishman, a Northwest senior vice president, said in a recent interview. "But we knew that a one-size-fits-all approach wasn't the right way to do it."

Looking for terrorists within the huge pool of airline travelers is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, Fishman said. In the fall of 2001, Northwest started pressuring federal officials to take steps to "shrink the size of the haystack."

As an early proponent of the registered-traveler concept, Northwest was selected by the TSA to be the first airline to test the idea, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will be used to launch the experiment.

"We thought this was a good idea, but we didn't know if our customers would think this was a good idea, so we did some surveys," Fishman said.

Two surveys showed that about 80 percent of Northwest's WorldPerks members were willing to provide personal data in exchange for more convenient security screening.

On June 18, Northwest sent a letter to Platinum Elite customers, those who fly 75,000 miles a year or more, and invited them to enroll in the registered traveler pilot program.

Five days after the letter was sent to Twin Cities customers, 1,545 people had already responded; all but 30 said they wanted to take part in the program.

Starting Monday, the TSA will enroll volunteers between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the mezzanine level of the Twin Cities airport. All participants must agree to federal government background checks, and must be willing to allow the TSA to scan their eyes and take their fingerprints in order to verify their identities at airports.

In return, they will get to pass through a registered traveler check line, which should take less time than going through the regular security checkpoints.

Fishman said that a few thousand frequent fliers and Northwest pilots and flight attendants will take part in the three-month test.

Only Platinum Elite passengers have been invited to join the test program, because Fishman said it was important to find passengers who will regularly go through the registered traveler checkpoint.

Northwest executives are hopeful that the test will be successful in the Twin Cities as well as at four other airports where test programs will be conducted later this year.

Ultimately, Fishman said, he'd like to see a registered traveler program that's readily available to the flying public.

Passengers do not have to pay anything to take part in the test program. But Fishman said that passengers probably would be charged a user fee if the TSA creates a broad-based registered traveler program.

Fishman said Northwest has a good working relationship with the TSA in the Twin Cities, so he expects they can jointly pursue the goals of "a high level of security and a high level of customer service."

Northwest's rapid embrace of biometric imprints such as eye scans to identify passengers fits into the airline's corporate culture of using technology to move customers quickly through airports.

Northwest introduced self-service check-in in March 1997 and Internet check-ins in May 2000. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Northwest secured more X-ray machines and metal detectors.

At the Twin Cities airport, Fishman said, Checkpoint 4 in the middle of the terminal was expanded from one to four lanes. That's helped eliminate some of the "hassle factor" of flying, but Fishman said the time it takes to arrive at the airport and board a plane still discourages some people from flying.

"A lot of people are saying that it's too much hassle to get through the airport and they might as well drive, " Fishman said. When a customer chooses to drive two to six hours, he added, "That's money out of [Northwest's] pockets, and it's inconvenient" for customers.

Fishman and other airline employees have to pass background checks as a condition of their employment. Fishman also had a special government clearance when he was a U.S. Navy officer. Currently, he could be subject to random security screening.

"I'm a pretty low risk. Why on earth do they want to expend their resources to check me out at the checkpoint?" Fishman asked. "There are a lot of people who are in same category."

Liz Fedor is at

lfedor@startribune.com .

 

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