Electronic Data Systems Corp. and other technology companies are competing to develop a 'smart card' that would let frequent travelers who undergo a retina scan or hand scan speed through airport security lines.
The appeal of such a card seems obvious to anyone who has stood in an hour-long security line at some U.S. airports.
Those lines have become the bane of harried business travelers, who now must leave for the airport much earlier to ensure catching their flight.
But EDS and the other companies working on a smart card say the idea is more than a mere convenience. With help from business-travel groups, they are lobbying administration officials and Congress to approve the cards as a needed security measure in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
'We're doing an improved job now of scanning and screening, but we still need to enhance the screening and do more physical checking,' said Jim Dullum, president of global transportation business at EDS. 'We need to enhance that with better knowledge of the people getting on the airplane.'
Variations of the smart card are already used by the U.S. military, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Israeli travelers and some corporations.
Personal information about the card holder is stored on a magnetic strip or computer chip. At security checkpoints, the person submits to at least one biometric measurement - usually a scan of his iris, face, hand or fingerprint - which is compared to an image of the same person that is stored in a data base or on the card itself.
In airports, the cards could be used to separate frequent fliers - who, it is assumed, are less likely to be terrorists - from other travelers. Security agents wouldn't check driver's licenses of frequent fliers and let them spend more time examining 'unknown' passengers.
Critics say a 'trusted-traveler' program would require intrusive background checks, allow the government to easily track people and fail to make the skies any safer.
'It's going to encourage security personnel to put their guard down and encourage people to obtain phony documents or (for terrorists) to obtain them by laying low for a while,' said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Promoters of the cards say that card holders would still be subject to bag searches, like everybody else.
Industry officials say so-called biometrics might be even more useful in verifying the identity of airport workers. Security experts say about 1 million airport workers have access to planes and baggage areas without going through metal detectors.
Plano, Texas-based EDS touts a system it helped develop three years ago at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, using hand geometry technology from Campbell, California-based Recognition Systems Inc. About 50,000 Israelis use the system each month to go through a quicker passport-control process lasting less than a minute.
A competitor, Reston, Virginia-based Maximus Inc., makes cards for the U.S. military. Both companies say the cards are tamper-resistant and a major improvement over current means of identification for airline passengers.
'It's far easier for someone to get a fake driver's license,' said Rachael Rowland, a spokeswoman for Maximus. 'With these cards, nobody else is going to have the same digital map of your fingerprint.'
EDS and Maximus say they could start pilot programs using smart cards in a few airports within two or three months of getting approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But much to the companies' frustration, the government hasn't given an indication when it might decide whether to approve the technology. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recently said he worried that 'sleeper cells' of terrorists could get travel cards.
'They are patient. If it takes them four or five years to get an ID card, that's a short time,' Mineta told The Associated Press.
There are other unanswered questions about the way cards would work: Who would conduct background checks? What kind of personal information would be gathered? How would privacy be protected?
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association and a supporter of the cards, acknowledged that some of his members were concerned the government could use the cards to track their travel habits.
Lines at most airports have gotten shorter since last fall, as airports add security agents and travelers learn the check-in process. But card supporters say air travel will return to pre-Sept. 11 levels, overwhelming security agents.
Technology companies believe that if tens of thousands of travelers learn to use smart cards, it will hasten their use in other aspects of our lives - resulting in even more sales.