|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
Plan your trip
Flights, hotels, cars
Online booking and tools.
International travel info
Passports, money and more.
Local travel resources
Trains, buses and roads.
The race to deliver travelers speedy airport checks
Seattle Times business reporter
For frequent travelers, long security lines at airports can be a huge source of frustration. New technology developed by Bellevue-based Saflink and other companies will test whether these travelers are willing to give up more privacy for greater convenience.
Saflink aims to play a role in the federal government's plan to privatize the Registered Traveler program, set to begin in June. The voluntary program allows people who pass background checks and submit fingerprints to pay for a special card and go through airport security faster than ordinary travelers. The idea is to identify people who don't pose a threat so resources aren't wasted focusing on them.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is relying on companies such as Saflink to help sell its program to airports and to travelers. Companies vying for a part in the program are relying on the TSA to offer enough time savings through checkpoints to persuade people to sign up and pay $80 to $100 a year to participate.
Other companies, such as Verified Identity Pass, have a head start in competing for Registered Traveler contracts at airports. They have created smart cards with computer chips that store biometric data, such as a digital version of a fingerprint or iris scan. The traveler swipes his or her card through a reader at the checkpoint, and that print is matched to the one the traveler presents to a fingerprint scanner on the spot.
In addition to verifying identity through its own biometric technology, Saflink and its partners want to add the function of a credit card with discounts on travel-related purchases and other incentives.
Credit-card transactions would use a magnetic stripe on the same card, but the identity verification and financial systems would work separately.
To offer the service, Saflink needs to reach an agreement with a financial-services partner.
"My hope is you can go into Starbucks, buy your paper and coffee, and go through the security line with one card," said Glenn Argenbright, Saflink president and chief executive.
Saflink has formed an alliance that includes Expedia Corporate Travel and Microsoft to target 38 million frequent business travelers for a market they estimate to be worth $3 billion.
Saflink looks to Expedia's large customer base as an ideal market. Microsoft would provide software for managing records that Saflink compiles.
Saflink found renewed interest in its products after 9/11 heightened security concerns. Just five years ago, the 15-year-old company faced serious financial difficulty and had been on the brink of closing.
Since then, Saflink has been working on the biometric card and reader technology, counting on a role in the TSA program to help revive its fortunes.
The company has continued to struggle with heavy financial losses. It lost $26 million in its third quarter of 2005, the last reported, on sales of $2.4 million. In December it received a notice from Nasdaq that it faces delisting because its stock price closed below the $1 minimum for 30 consecutive days. It has until June to bounce back.
Argenbright has called the Registered Traveler initiative "extremely important" to Saflink's future.
"Saflink is a pretty small company, so something like this can have a substantial impact on it, assuming it works," said James McIlree, managing director at C. E. Unterberg, Towbin. McIlree owns no Saflink stock and the company does not perform investment banking for Saflink.
Yet TSA's program has been plagued by delays and has hit resistance from airlines related to its cost. Questions remain about how exactly it will work and how many airports will sign on.
The TSA has said travelers will pass through new security lines faster, but it's not being specific about what time-consuming steps might be eliminated, such as removing shoes or taking laptops out of carrying cases.
"The best I can understand is that you will not need to go through all the steps you need to for the regular line," said Mitch Robinson, marketing director of Expedia Corporate Travel. "Those steps might change from week to week."
Expedia is watching to see how many airports agree to implement the project, which technology solution will be chosen and what business travelers think about it. Expedia has more than 2,000 corporate customers in the United States.
"We're being very careful," Robinson said. "It will be hard to tell the worth of this until it's in a fair number of airports."
Besides its affiliation with Saflink, Expedia is also "keeping an eye on other companies" as potential partners, Robinson said.
So far, rival Verified Identity has operated a pilot project in Orlando, Fla., that has drawn about 12,500 participants, and it signed a deal with San Jose International Airport, among others.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has not committed to the program yet.
Besides the challenge of getting airports to sign up, the program also raises serious concerns among privacy advocates.
The TSA is asking private companies to collect fingerprints and personal data such as addresses and Social Security numbers from travelers who sign up for the program. The agency then uses this for a basic background check. In addition, the TSA is considering an optional upgrade for people willing to undergo additional scrutiny, Argenbright said. That background check might involve verifying home ownership, utility bills, car payments and other commercial data, he said, in exchange for more services.
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the need for a new card to speed airport departures "artificially created demand."
"The inconvenience and delay at airports is caused by the government," he said. Each component of the travel card carries privacy risks, he said. Combined, they could "create an amazing moving picture of your everyday life," he said.
The financial transactions would be processed by banks and be separate from other data on the card, Argenbright said. But he acknowledged that the program would not appeal to everyone.
"There are going to be people who freak out about that, and I don't want to force them" to participate, he said.
Still, the viability of the program depends on getting a large number of people to join.
"If nobody is going to buy this thing, then nobody in private industry is going to support it," Argenbright said. "It comes down to what will the consumer accept as an annoyance and a privacy risk."
"The more people you join, the more control you have, the more security in your screening lines," he said. "If there's only a small percentage of people, you gain nothing."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company