Wednesday, 26 April 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 8 ("Registered Traveler")

Nizwa (Oman) - Perth (Australia) - Fremantle (Australia) - Rottnest Island (Australia) - Fremantle (Australia)

Quick: What’s the fastest way to get from Muscat to Perth?

Sometimes there are many possible flight connections from point A to point B, and often the fastest or best route is less than obvious, or leads through someplace you wouldn’t think of as a major hub.

Not so in this case: Everyone the racers ask for advice tells them , correctly, that the way to go is through Dubai — the new Constantinople for trade and transit between Europe, Asia, Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand.

So the dramatic tension in this week’s episode of The Amazing Race 9 was about whether the trailing team, Tyler and B.J., would make it onto the Emirates flight to Dubai with the rest of the teams, or be left behind. If they didn’t make it, the next best connections — using a Gulf Air / Oman Air codeshare flight (which only operates on certain days of the week) to connect to Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur — would have gotten them into Perth twelve hours behind the rest of the teams.

(Coincidentally, I saw Tyler this week, looking like he was on his way home from the airport in Oakland, on the BART platform where I was waiting for the train home after the A’s-Angels baseball game Friday night at the Oakland Coliseum. The same train station serves the stadium, arena, and airport, which causes problems for travellers with luggage trying to make their way through the crowds that jam the station before and after games and concerts. Tyler and I were no more than 10 feet apart, but it was impossible for me to get any closer. He was soon recognized by some of the people closer to him, however, and the last I saw of him he was being swept onto the Richmond train — I was still waiting for a San Francisco train — amid a crowd of admiring fans.)

Tyler and B.J. made it, in part because they had no baggage to check, carry on, or have inspected: They had to give up everything except the clothes they were wearing as the alternative to elimination for finishing last in the previous leg of the race. (They were also yelling, “Hold that plane”, although I doubt that had any effect. Once in my life, I have been told at the check-in counter, “You must run. The plane is waiting for you.” But that was an exceptional situation, and I don’t expect it ever to happen again.)

On the television broadcasts of the race, one of the realities we aren’t shown is what happens between the check-in counter and boarding the plane, or between getting off the plane and getting out of customs and immigration. The camera and sound technicians accompanying the teams of racers are, presumably, too busy having their own belongings inspected ( a complicated process when you have expensive professional gear) and their passports stamped to be filming the racers at the same time — even if they were allowed to, which they probably aren’t: most countries including the USA forbid photography in customs, immigration, and “security” inspection areas of airports.

Of course, we’d all love to be able to arrive at the airport at the last minute, and just run (or walk) straight onto our plane. That’s the promise held out by the USA Transportation Security Administration’s proposals to operate dual passenger screening checkpoints at USA airports, with a slow line for ordinary (second-class) travellers and a separate “fast lane” for those who, for a fee (and a profit), are registered, fingerprinted, iris-scanned, and investigated through a private franchisee working with the TSA, using some combination of government and commercial data, and given special registered traveler credentials.

As I’ve reported previously, this traveller registration scheme is already in use in Orlando, Florida. This week, the TSA announced that its next steps later this year will be to expand the scheme to more airports, and to propose new regulations to add criminal background checks to the other requirements for traveller registration.

(The criminal background checks would add a new level of irrationality to the scheme. Earlier this month, the Secretary of Homeland Security — whose department includes the TSA — told the Washington Post that “I don’t know … that background checks … will predict future behavior.” And does this mean that, because I committed the felony of organizing people to refuse to submit draft registration forms promising to kill other people of the government’s choice on the government’s command, I and other convicted pacifists will be deemed ineligible for registration as travellers, and treated as lifelong threats to aviation?)

The registered traveler program was designed to appease business travellers who complained about how much longer it took to travel by air when new passenger screening procedures, more like those that had long been used in the rest of the world (although they would later diverge away from international norms of universal inspection, in the direction of surveillance, profiling, and selective inspection — a trend epitomized by the two-track registered/unregistered traveler inspection system), were implemented in the USA after 11 September 2006. Airlines and airports also hoped that a fast track for registered travellers would help avoid the loss of business travel market share to Amtrak or driving, which were more competitive with flying the longer flyers were delayed by “security” measures.

Yet the more business travellers and the travel industry have learned about traveller registration, the more they have come to oppose it. “TSA will be prepared for a roll-out at 10 to 20 airports”, according to their press release , but it’s unclear if that many airports are actually interested. USA Today and the Boston Globe , among other publications, report that most major airports remain skeptical about the plan, with only two major airports (LAX and MSP) committed to participate.

The Globe quotes Henry Harteveldt, a leading travel analyst and consultant with Forrester Research, as saying that “there’s little benefit … for either travelers or airports.”

Under the original concept, travelers would submit to a background check, provide iris scans and fingerprint information, and pay an annual fee that would fund the service….

But the TSA said last week that registered travelers would be subject to the same random secondary screenings as regular travelers. The agency has yet to spell out what, if any, additional benefits might be afforded registered travelers.

”Why do you need to pay $80 a year for that kind of abuse? What’s the benefit here?” asked Harteveldt.

Also last week, the influential business travel newsletter The Beat carried a guest column against the TSA’s plan, at least in its current form, by Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems , a leading provider of security, risk assessment, and crisis response services for business travellers:

I do not see how those [personal] data and biometric information would help enhance security, and I suspect the sharing of that data — with a private company contracted by the government — will likely result in breaches of privacy down the road. My most significant concern is the privacy issues around relinquishing your biometric information for a quick trip through the airport…. Entrusting this precious information, which will ultimately control your world, to multiple commercial companies not subject to strict regulation is more than a bad idea: It could haunt you for the rest of your life.

So if the TSA’s proposals do register travellers don’t have the support of travellers, airports, airlines, or aviation security experts, where is the impetus for them coming from? Cui bono?

The only entities who appear likely to benefit are the companies operating the system, and their stockholders: Stephen Brill’s Verified Identity Pass, Inc. and the rival Fast Lane Option Alliance consortium including Saflink Corp , Microsoft, and others. The profitability of the program is enhanced by the fact that only one company or consortium will be given an exclusive franchise for traveller credentialling and control of access to the preferential screening lanes at each airport.

Of course, it’s all “voluntary”. If you don’t want to participate, or don’t meet the (secret) criteria for a “maybe get through security screening slightly faster” credential, you can just stay in the slow lane. Just don’t forget to be at the airport even earlier, as screeners are shifted from the slow lanes to speed up the fast lanes for registered travellers.

(I’ll be travelling, attending meetings here and here until late at night, and staying with friends, one of whom doesn’t have a television, the next two Wednesday nights. So I may have to skip The Amazing Race . I’ll be back for what may be the final episode of this season on 17 May 2006.)

[Addendum, 1 May 2006: More criticism from well-known experts within the aviation industry in a story on the decision by Las Vegas’ airport not to participate in the registered traveler program: “‘There’s no advantage to this at any airport,’ said airline and airport consultant Mike Boyd of the Evergreen, Colo.-based Boyd Group. ‘It doesn’t speed anything up and people would pay $80 for the same security they get now. There’s no better security. It’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors.’ The most irritating aspect of the RT program is that it could actually slow things down for anybody who doesn’t pay up. Randy Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, has told the TSA that he doesn’t want McCarran International Airport to be one of the 10 to 20 airports that the RT would be first implemented (to which Boyd said, ‘Good for him for recognizing a scam when he sees one.’)”]

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 26 April 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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