A recent traveler on Registered Traveler

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Two of the stories I worked on this month coalesced in fine fashion. In order to interview the executives at some of our industry's most interesting companies (see "The industry, in person," Top Stories), I had to concurrently experience first hand the allure of the Registered Traveler program (see "Saflink and Johnson Controls to challenge VIP," Top Stories) through the course of 10 planes, four security checks and two customs clearances.
Oh yes, the Registered Traveler program is alluring indeed.
It's not that I resent airport security procedures or think them unnecessary. I'm perfectly happy slipping off my shoes, taking my laptop from my briefcase, shuffling off my jacket, emptying my pockets and walking through the metal detector--only to have my watch set off the alarm--if it means our planes are safe. It's a small price to pay for peace of mind and only once did I drop my laptop and cause an undue ruckus.
But that doesn't mean I enjoy the process. Nor do I enjoy the whiners and complainers who bellyache about taking off their shoes, removing their laptops, offing their jackets...you get the idea. We in America like our creature comforts and we do not like to be inconvenienced.
Once, after I was selected for an additional pat down and search in Fresno, Calif., a woman who couldn't quite get her shoes back on looked at me as she went by and hissed, "Can you believe this?"
I was the one with a guy fondling the inside of my thigh, what did she have to complain about?
Most of the screeners I encountered were charmingly friendly, efficient, and interested in getting everyone through in a timely manner while fulfilling the requirements of their job. Some of them even seemed to be having fun.
That takes a seriously cheery disposition when you run into the types of characters these screeners do. Another woman I encountered in my travels through Fort Lauderdale was just plain drunk. She might have passed every part of the screening in theoretical terms, but there was no way the TSA official was letting her on the plane. Inebriated and upset, with an embarrassed husband next to her, she began making a pretty decent scene. I'll admit I was entertained by her frequent outbursts of, "Do I look like a terrorist to you?," but I'll gather the security staff was less than thrilled dealing with her and the good folks behind her were probably pretty miserable as the line snaked further and further into the airport lobby.
Right then, I'd wager, a good 90 percent of them would have laid out $100 to go to the front of the line had their been a Registered Traveler salesperson nearby.
There will be critics who say Registered Traveler, Steve Brill's competing Verified Identity Pass and other programs that will follow are elitist, just a way for the rich to go to the front of the line while the poor queue up for their body cavity searches. Really, though, the frequent flyer services are a way to infuse private money into public security procedures, and they will wind up bringing better and more efficient technology--GE's EntryScan3 "puffer" machines or Rapiscan Secure 1000 X-ray body scanners, maybe--to the public at large in the long run.
Yes, the frequent flyers and the wealthy will pay for the privilege to go to the front of the line and avoid whatever it is the TSA says they can avoid for joining the program. That's what the free market is all about. Choice. But, in the end, those travelers will simply be putting a down payment for all of us on infrastructure that the security industry will provide to make sure, one day, none of us have to look at people's hole-riddled socks on our way to see grandma.
Most importantly, that infrastructure will ensure that all of us reach our final destinations.