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Eye scans get frequent fliers' ayes

Boston Globe | August 10 2004

Frequent fliers at Logan International Airport began signing up for a trial program yesterday that will use eye scans to speed their check-ins.

The travelers -- for now only those who regularly fly American Airlines out of Boston -- registered their fingerprints and other personal information with the Transportation Security Administration before having digital pictures taken of their eyes. Then, they received a wallet-sized ID with a special computer chip.

Beginning next week, those cards will allow the fliers to bypass long lines leading to security checkpoints by swiping the card through a machine, which will scan an index fingerprint and an iris -- physical attributes unique in every person -- instantly checking them against the digital information stored on the chip, and approve travelers to advance to baggage screening.

Although the government says it may expand the security advancement beyond frequent fliers, for now airports and passengers hope the system will cut down on lines for everyone and give screeners more time to focus on travelers who could be a greater security threat.

Despite complaints from civil libertarians who believe the program will allow the government greater access into citizens' personal lives, those who signed up yesterday morning said they were thrilled.

''In Europe, they do the eye scans anyway," said Mary Holohan, a Hull resident who is originally from Ireland. Holohan, who ran in to grab an application for the program before rushing to catch a flight to Chicago, said she'd already given the government most of the information required to become a registered traveler years ago, when she applied to become a naturalized US citizen.

''Anybody that has a passport, they already have the information about you," she said, referring to such data as date and place of birth, address and physical description.

Yesterday's registrants, chosen because the airline volunteered its best customers, found the 10-minute process easy, despite a few glitches.

Passengers had to sit with their eyes about six to eight inches away from a special camera that snaps separate pictures of each iris. But when David Frogel of Westborough sat in front of the machine, ''for some reason, it thought my left eye was my right eye," he said while sitting on a bench waiting for a security administration manager to correct the problem.

Thomas DeWinter, manager of business development for LG Electronics USA, the Jamesburg, N.J., company that makes the iris cameras, said about one in eight people have a problem when they first sit in front of the machines because most people look into the camera with both eyes instead of one.

The system allows passengers to wear glasses or even colored contact lenses when scanning their eyes. But anyone wearing contacts with unique patterns on them, which have become fashionable among teens in recent years, would have a problem.

''Color doesn't matter, but if you have a patterned lens, we would make you remove it before you register," said Kevin Clarke, a spokesman for EDS Corp., of Herndon, Va. EDS is administering the trial program in Boston and at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. under a $1.3 million contract with administration.

Another company has been running a similar pilot program at three other major US airports since June, exceeding enrollment goals.

Travelers at Logan yesterday had to bring their invitations from American, along with two government-issued forms of identification -- such as a driver's license and passport -- and fill out a detailed enrollment form.

Marybeth Pompei of Cambridge was among the first to complete the application and test the process. She approached a kiosk and swiped her card. The kiosk, about the size of an arcade game, has a large screen to display text, a small digital pad for scanning fingerprints and a camera at the top used to match the iris photo.

Finding a match, the screen displayed a huge digital picture of Pompei's iris.

''I'm looking at a big picture of my own eye," said Pompei, whose job as senior vice president at Exergen Corp., a medical devices company, takes her on travel at least three times weekly. ''This means one less thing I have to go through."

When the system is fully deployed next week, she will be able to flash her card and move directly to a dedicated baggage-screening lane for registered travelers where there would rarely be a crowd.

She won't have to show her boarding pass there and will avoid the random ''special screenings" that include manually searched luggage and shoe removal.

Los Angeles International Airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston have already begun trials, while Ronald Reagan National will start next week. The security administration, which is spending about $5 million on the 90-day trials, sought busy airports spread throughout different regions of the nation to determine whether the equipment is effective and reduces lines.

Officials said yesterday they hope to get 2,000 passengers per test city registered during the trial period. When testing ends, the agency will review the data, with an eye toward expanding the program.

In Boston, the program is limited to American Airlines' most frequent fliers who use Logan as their primary departure airport. In Minneapolis, the test is limited to Northwest Airlines frequent fliers. United Airlines passengers can sign up in Los Angeles and Continental Airlines passengers are eligible in Houston.

The trial is limited to only the most frequent fliers so the security administration would be able to easily evaluate how much it expedited travelers' waits, said Ann Davis, the agency's northeast regional spokeswoman. American informed about 8,000 of its Boston passengers who fly at least once per week they could sign up for their registered traveler cards at Logan this week. About 120 had signed up by noon yesterday, Davis said. Registration ends Friday.

Because the program is still being tested, passengers will only be able to use their registered traveler cards at their home airports.

A Boston registered traveler could bypass the security line with her card at Logan, but if returning home from Houston, for example, she would face regular security procedures.

So far, the program has been popular in Minneapolis, which opened its dedicated registered traveler lane July 7. About 2,400 passengers there registered and as many as 300 passengers have used it in one day.

''They've checked both the iris technology and the fingerprint technology," said security agency spokeswoman Amy von Walter, ''and it's gone very well."