Thursday, December 10, 2009

Will Registered Traveler Return?

There's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, but what about an idea whose time has come and gone?

This could well be the situation that registered-traveler programs - a way of fast-tracking frequent fliers through airport security checks in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -now face. This, despite today's announcement that the sole surviving RT provider (out of three) has agreed to partner with a corporate and government biometric ID provider that will allow consumers to enroll in an RT program at places other than airports, starting in January.

Pasadena's FLO Corp., that self-same survivor, struck a deal with Chantilly, Vir.-based Cogent Systems to use Cogent's 1,000 physical locations to enroll travelers in FLO's RT program. FLO claims in a Dec. 10 press release that 200,000 people signed up at $100 to $200 a pop, per year, "over the last several years ...'' The release doesn't say where those 1,000 new locations are, and a visit to Cogent's Web site hasn't turned up their locations, either. I haven't seen any flashing neon signs reading "RT enrollment here,'' so this is still a matter of some interest. Cogent does business with numerous U.S., state and local government agencies, and with corporations, providing palm-and-fingerprint electronic reads to establish a person's identity.

Registered traveler, which took several years to barely get off the ground after 2001, nearly vaporized in June 2009, when the largest RT vendor, Verified Identity Pass's CLEAR, ran out of money and shut down. Only a handful of U.S. airports participated in any version of RT, so in theory providing 1,000 new places to enroll - wherever they are - and accelerating FLO's efforts could speed RT's return.

But then again, maybe not. All this begs the question of whether travelers want RT, and are willing to pay for it. Originally conceived as a way of whisking trusted fliers past airport security hassles with a minimum of muss and fuss (after they passed background checks and provided their biometerics), the programs evolved - or did they devolve? - from security nets to concierge services. Commercial RT programs took paying members to the front of the security line, but did little else. Members still had to remove their belts, take out their laptops, take off their shoes and do everything other travelers have to do at stressful U.S. airports.

Moreover, much of what an RT program does is done already by many airlines for premium customers - and at no extra charge. For instance, when I departed Mumbai airport last month on Egyptair, I was walked right up to the check-in desk and whisked through airport security in a separate line because I was flying business class. A similar thing happened to me in September at San Francisco International Airport, when I departed for Hong Kong aboard Cathay Pacific Airways, again in business class. A Cathay employee walked me to security, hoisted my luggage onto the conveyor belt at the X-ray machine, helped me re-pack on the other side of security, then walked me to the business lounge, chatting pleasantly.

RT programs may yet revive in the U.S. and make a go of it as some kind of "bespoke'' customer service, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Most people see them as costly and superfluous, and there's a good chance that perception will hold.

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