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Originally published Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 11:35 AM

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Fast airport lines, but fingerprint woes with Global Entry program

Many love the lack of airport lines, but there are problems with fingerprint scanners.

The New York Times

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Is the popular Global Entry program working as advertised? That’s the program that gives members who have been prescreened quick re-entry into the United States at major international airports.

Absolutely yes, says U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that operates Global Entry. The program generates “overwhelmingly positive comments,” John Wagner, the acting deputy assistant commissioner for field operations, told me last Friday. The gist of many comments, he said, is: “Holy cow! The government did something right.”

I hear the same from many travelers who are delighted to speed through Customs at automated kiosks and avoid the sometimes seemingly interminable international arrival lines. “Traveling in from Tokyo last Monday, it took less than one minute” to clear Customs at Los Angeles International Airport, said Rob Newman, a television commercial producer who travels abroad frequently. “I was out of Immigration and Customs and at my office in Marina del Rey while some people were still waiting in the lines.”

Another reader, Eric Evans, said, “No lines, and in less than two minutes I’m through Immigration.” And Greeley Koch, the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, wrote, “The longest I ever waited in line was 30 seconds.”

As I noted in a previous column, applications for Global Entry (globalentry.gov), which charges a $100 processing fee, have more than doubled since early January, to around 50,000 a month. About 1.5 million people have been approved to use the airport re-entry kiosks.

But there have been issues, as the technology people say. Readers have continued to tell me about problems with fingerprint scanners. Prints are recorded at enrollment centers, where an applicant who passes the background check reports for an interview, in the final step of the approval process. When passengers use the airport kiosks to re-enter the country, their fingerprints and passports are scanned.

“It took the agent multiple times to scan my prints” during enrollment at a center at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, reported Richard J. Harrison.

The other day, I asked Wagner at the customs agency about this. “There is a certain small percentage of the population, I’d say in the 3 percent range, that don’t have good, readable fingerprints for various reasons. Some people just have very faint ridges in fingerprints, and we just don’t get a good read on them,” he said. “But by and large, we’re not seeing a huge number of complaints about this.”

Several readers expressed concern that a failed fingerprint scan would mean being sent to the back of the entry line. Wagner said that wasn’t so. In the relatively small number of failed scans at the entry kiosk, “it just prints out an X and they’re instructed to go to the nearest CBP officer,” who confirms their identity and processes them quickly, he said.

Koch, of the corporate travel executives’ association, said that on the rare occasion when the scanner didn’t read his prints properly, the kiosk “prints out a receipt that I take to an inspector, which spares me from having to go to the end of the line.”

Helene Glass said that at O’Hare’s international terminal, “a long line of us who carry the Global Entry card were unable to get any of the three machines to read our fingerprints,” and were sent instead to the front of the regular lines.

Readers also mentioned inconveniences in arranging the required interview at an enrollment center. “Right now, we’ve got 88,000 people with Global Entry interviews scheduled on the books” and an additional 13,000 in the enrollment process who have not yet scheduled interviews, Wagner said. “We definitely want to open more appointments to make sure people can get in within several weeks, and not a couple of months.”

But the issue that generates the most response is confusion about the relationship between Global Entry and the trusted-traveler initiative of the Transportation Security Administration called PreCheck. Participating airlines nominate PreCheck members from among their highest-volume customers, but Global Entry members also qualify for PreCheck.

“I nearly burst out laughing when I read that column,” said Victoria I. Paterno, a Los Angeles doctor who joined Global Entry mainly to obtain PreCheck, which is supposed to provide regular E-ZPass-like security clearance. Still, in more than 30 trips through airport checkpoints since receiving Global Entry membership, she said she had been able to use a PreCheck lane for fast passage through TSA security exactly once.

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