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Is ID card future of air travel?

The Dallas Morning News
Getting a ticket to fly on an airplane could require more information from a passenger than a motorist needs to get a driver’s license. That is, if that airline passenger wants to avoid wading through the enhanced maze of security at America’s airports since the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Among the airline and airport security suggestions being considered by U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is the implementation of a voluntary national travel card.

Proponents say such a card could be linked to a national database of encrypted information such as fingerprints, facial characteristics, home addresses and phone numbers, so passengers’ names could be checked against a list of known criminals and potential terrorists. A side benefit is that the system could be so streamlined that holders of the card, after a one-time registration, could speed through the ticketing and security process at airports nationwide.

Critics say such a system would fail to provide complete security; wouldn’t pinpoint a security threat who has no record; and would rob individuals of privacy merely for the convenience of the airlines.

Whether such a system could work would hinge on the outcome of the debate over how many civil liberties Americans will give up in the interest of security and convenience.

“We don’t want to have a system that is so difficult that it’s like a prison,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, He said the nation’s airports – with border guards, bag searches, locked employee entrances and restricted parking – are already a lot like prisons.

Though Mineta’s office has not made public details of the travel card proposal, aviation industry officials say airport security workers would probably be responsible for issuing the cards or taking personal information from frequent fliers.

Interested passengers would give their personal information to airport security workers, who would enter it in the database.

Travel card proponents say the public would demand a much easier traveling process in return for giving up such information.

“I would have it set up so you could go through a quicker screening process,” Barton said. “Straight to the gate – not through the gate, then security, then the gate.”

Passengers who don’t want a travel card would move through the ticketing and security process as they do now – check luggage, proceed to security and, in some airlines’ cases, check in again at the boarding gate.

In the last five years, the addition of iris scans and handprints onto plastic cards – a process known as biometrics – has been creeping into world of travel, mostly at international terminals in airports.

At eight U.S. airports, frequent international travelers can apply for an INS Passenger Accelerated Service System, or INSPASS card, and enjoy an expedited customs process. The traveler arrives in the terminal, proceeds to an INSPASS inspection line and inserts a card into a kiosk, similar to a bank’s automated-teller machine. If the traveler’s identity is verified, a receipt of inspection is printed by the kiosk, directing the traveler to proceed to U.S. Customs inspection. If the flier’s identity can’t be verified, a message on the computer screen refers the traveler to an immigration inspector in a nearby inspection booth. It takes less than 20 seconds to complete this process.

The Canadian card system has not been used since the Sept. 11 attacks, in part because so little is known about how the terrorists gained entry, officials said.

The software provider of INSPASS and CANPASS is Ottawa-based AiT Corp. The firm was called upon by one of Mr. Mineta’s task forces to present it with a list of available tools that could be used for increased security.

The company’s president and chief executive officer, Bernie Ashe, declined to discuss his firm’s presentation to the task force but did discuss how such a system could work for domestic travel in the U.S. and Canada.

“Most travelers have in their pockets and purses some sort of identification,” he said. “You don’t need to provide a separate card.” A document such as a driver’s license or passport could be used to verify the identity of airline customers who have agreed to have their fingerprints, photographs or other personal information placed into a database for the ticket agent to use.

The key to making a secured pre-clearance system work in the airports is not the card or the information it contains, Ashe said. It’s the one-on-one interview that participating travelers would have to undergo.

“The process of having a one-on-one interview with a prospective visitor is likely to be the most likely way to make judgments about someone’s eligibility,” he said.

Mike Boyd, a former American Airlines ticket agent who manages an aviation consulting business, called the idea of a travel card “brilliant.”

“It does both things that should have been the goal” before last month’s attacks, he said. “A, to not let terrorists shut down our system, and B, vastly improve our airport security.”

Slepian says the airlines should stick to verifying identities through driver’s licenses, a practice that came to the terminals with the advent of ticketless travel in the 1990s. He said airlines should work harder for real security solutions, such as X-ray equipment that can detect bombs.