Luck of the iris - look out for new fast-track measures in airports

Breeze through immigration in the blink of an eye: that is the promise of a free new service that speeds up foreign travellers' arrival at British airports. Airline passengers who register before departure from the UK for the Iris Recognition Immigration System (Iris) can bypass the passport-control queues when they return.

The scheme has been introduced by the Home Office at three UK airports: Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. It is based on the unique pattern of each individual's iris. Travellers who sign up to the system have an image of their eye taken and stored on a central computer. On arrival back in the UK, the passenger is directed to a special Iris booth. Here, the iris is scanned, and if it matches the database, a gate opens and the passenger is free to go, or at least to hang around at baggage reclaim.

"A much more efficient and convenient way to clear immigration", enthuses the Home Office - as well it might, given the ever-lengthening lines for arriving passengers at Britain's airports. An increasingly frequent complaint to The Independent is of long waits at passport control; one way to cut processing times for all travellers is to allow "trusted travellers" to use the automated system.

THE TRICKY part is being trusted - or, at least, being in the right place at the right time to get registered. At present, the scheme is aimed squarely at foreign business travellers. "Enrolment stations" are located at all four Heathrow terminals, at Manchester's Terminal 1 and 2, and at Gatwick North Terminal (which has a higher proportion of business travellers than the South Terminal). Gatwick South, Stansted and Birmingham Terminal 1 are next in line.

Enrolment stations are located "airside", ie after the central search area. They can be hard to find - at Gatwick, for example, it is tucked away at the foot of the spiral walkway serving gates 59-63. Travellers who track it down will be able to register within 10 minutes, according to Home Office estimates.

For most passengers, the process is straightforward: an immigration official checks the person's passport. If satisfied, details are entered on a database and two photographs are taken. One is a standard portrait; the second is the iris pattern. The passenger is then given a quick tutorial on how to use the iris-recognition camera when they return.

THERE IS no direct connection between Iris and the introduction of biometric passports, though 10 years from now, the separate technologies will probably have converged. But it does point the way towards something that has hitherto not been discussed in the controversy over airport security checks: positive profiling. Already in the US, frequent business travellers can register for "fast track" processing, if they agree to have their background checked. They can then use separate lanes for searches. Soon, the world will be divided into those who are able to skim through airport formalities, and everyone else.

"WILL SANITY ever return?" wonders Ellen Alcock, about the present rules on what hand luggage you are allowed to take through airport security. Airline captains, who have the lives of hundreds in their hands, are not even permitted to take toothpaste through the checkpoints. "There is a conspiracy to force us to buy everything in Departures," she speculates. "The easyJet website now tells us we're not allowed to take empty bottles in our hand luggage. Anyone needing a drink of water must buy it - no filling up our bottles after the inspection. And my two-year-old granddaughter had to take her shoes off at inspection at Stansted. What is happening when time is wasted on such ridiculous procedures?"

In the world's northernmost inhabited islands of Spitzbergen, there is no such nonsense. "Just back from Barentsburg, the most northerly coal mine in operation," reports Julian Nowill. "I also visited the ghost town of Pyramiden and its moribund mine. You are required to hire a beacon, trip wires, and gun as protection from polar bears." Longyearbyen airport, it turns out, is probably the only one in the world where the carrying of weapons is encouraged.