Shorter security lines at airport? Not so fast!

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 04/25/08

The man who brought you Court TV has butted heads with the man who runs the world's busiest airport over the best way to provide faster security lanes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Steve Brill, who made Nancy Grace a household name, and Ben DeCosta, who oversees Atlanta's massive, 86-million-passengers-a-year airport, are at odds over Brill's proposal to put paid, high-speed security lanes at Hartsfield-Jackson. Such lanes are already operating at more than a dozen airports around the country.

Fred R. Conrad
Steven Brill is proposing to add paid, high-speed security lanes at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Brigette Rivera Goersch, director of security at the Orlando International Airport, demonstrates the iris scan at the new 'CLEAR' kiosk at the airport in 2005. Those who pay $80 a year to join the traveler pilot program agree to a security screening by the Transportation Security Administration. If they are approved, they get a card that holds a computer chip containing the passenger's fingerprints and iris image for quick identity verification.

Ben DeCosta, who oversees the Atlanta airport, is adding more free security lanes.

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DeCosta has taken bids on the proposal, including Brill's,but last month made a surprise announcement that the airport will first try adding new free-of-charge lanes that should be operational by midsummer.

The paid lanes, DeCosta said, would have to wait in line.

"My wish is that anything that we implement here in Atlanta provides benefits across the board, and not just to the people who buy the front of the line," DeCosta said Thursday. That decision has caused Brill — who has already signed up 6,000 people in metro Atlanta for his "Clear" program — to bristle. He's encouraging his Georgia clients to get in touch with DeCosta or other city officials who run the airport.

DeCosta says he's already gotten 300 e-mails.

"Of all the major business travel airports in the U.S., this airport does have the biggest security problems in terms of unpredictable wait times," Brill said Thursday. Brill has offered to foot the cost for a special Clear lane.

Pete LeMoine of Flowery Branch is one of the metro Atlanta residents who has signed up for Clear and agreed to pay its $128-a-year fee. A regional sales manager, the 41-year-old LeMoine flies out of Hartsfield-Jackson 10-20 times a month.

"I've seen them [paid lanes] at other airports, where it's amazing," said the veteran travel warrior. "You can bank on five minutes to get through security."

LeMoine said he builds into his schedule 45 minutes for security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson, which he said are unpredictable.

"I just shake my head when I'm in the lanes, out of frustration," he said. "I'm baffled as to their reason for not doing this in Atlanta."

Hartsfield-Jackson has been aggressively working to reduce security-line wait times, which can fluctuate wildly. Wait times can run more than an hour during the frenetic morning rush but dwindle to just a few minutes in the middle of the day. The airport wants the lines to run no longer than 15-20 minutes and has pressured the Transportation Security Administration to fully staff all of the airport's 22 main gates during rush hours.

There are a total of 28 security lanes at the airport, and DeCosta's $25 million plan calls for eliminating six inefficient lanes and adding 10 new lanes.

That would result in a net increase of four lanes, but DeCosta said the impact would be much greater because all of the new lanes will provide maximum passenger volume.

Brill claims he can reduce wait times to no more than five minutes for anyone willing to fork over cash to join Clear. Brill's company has 140,000 members nationwide and paid lanes at more than a dozen U.S. airports, including Orlando, San Francisco and New York's LaGuardia and JFK.

Members go through an intensive background check by the TSA and have biometric information — fingerprints and iris scans — placed on a special-access cards.

Once at the airport, a member would access the paid lanes with the Clear card. At the front of the lines, they would be helped by concierges to remove their coats and laptops. Concierges at the end of the line would help them reassemble their items.

Proponents argue that the paid lanes, aimed primarily at business travelers, are good for members and nonmembers alike because they reduce the burden on nonpaid lines. Detractors contend the paid lanes discriminate against people who can't afford the extra fees — and raise civil liberties concerns because of the extensive background checks required.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Clair Muller, who chairs the committee that oversees the airport, said officials need to "move cautiously" on paid lanes. She said the airport and TSA must first guarantee safety.

"We also want to make sure people who do not buy one of those cards do not get slowed down by people who have a line all to themselves," Muller said.

The chairwoman said she wants to see how the new free lanes work before deciding on the paid lanes.

Brill thinks there are about 200,000 potential customers for the program at Hartsfield-Jackson, which would make it, by far, Clear's largest operation.

DeCosta and Brill met Thursday in Atlanta to discuss the issue — DeCosta invited his lawyer to sit in.

"It was a good talk," DeCosta said.

The airport leader said he could decide soon whether to go ahead and award a paid-lanes contract, for which Clear and Virginia-based FLO Corp. are bidding.

But DeCosta said a pilot program for the paid lanes would have to wait until construction of the new free lanes is finished, probably in July or August.

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