Biometrics is gaining ground in travel - but by stealth, and because airline passengers are prepared to pay for the privilege. With a certain inevitability, Britain's pilot scheme for issuing "smart" passports is slipping behind. The first biometric-encoded documents were due to be issued this autumn, but this target is likely to be missed. Meanwhile, though, frequent users of two of the world's busier airports are paying substantial sums to be measured up for a microchip that will make their travelling lives easier.
You may well have flown into Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. It is in most respects one of the finest in the world, and manages to cram an extraordinary range of facilities - and departure gates - into a relatively small area. But the queues for immigration from "non-Schengen" countries (fringe European nations like Britain, plus the rest of the world) are often very long and slow. The innovative Dutch have come up with a way to accellerate the progress of some travellers a great deal, and speed up the rest a little, using iris recognition. Frequent flyers who enlist in the Privium scheme can pass through a special channel literally in the blink of an eye. When the instrumentation confirms their identity, they can be halfway to the Hague by the time the rest of us have reached the front of the line - though, to be fair, by removing themselves from the queues they have done everyone a favour.
The price of this time-saving is €99 (£70) a year, and the system works only at Amsterdam, but thousands of travellers have felt it worthwhile to sign up.
AMERICAN IMMIGRATION authorities were way ahead of the biometric game. In the early 1990s, a scheme was introduced that constituted the greatest transatlantic time-saving device since the introduction of Concorde. The system, called Inspass, used a very simple biometric: hand geometry, which is both unique and can be read instantly. Anyone who visited the US several times a year was able to sign up, free of charge. Special Inspass channels allowed travellers to bypass the often interminable queues for immigration - for some reason every flight I take to the US seems to arrive simultaneously with planes carrying half the population of South America.
This excellent scheme was dropped after the terrorist attacks of 2001, and has yet to be replaced. But another consequence of 9/11 was a sharp rise in the length of lines for airport security. For some journeys, such as Washington- New York, you can spend longer queuing to be frisked than you spend in the air. The solution: "To get in the fast lane, enroll at www.flyclear.com, urges the publicity for the Clear Registered Traveler Program, now being piloted at Orlando airport in Florida. The premise is that "someone who is screened in advance is less likely to be a threat than someone who isn't".
To qualify, you fill in an online registration form. Next, you have to take two forms of photographic ID to the "ClearSpace Enrollment Centre" at the Florida airport, hand over your credit card for the $79.95 (£47) annual fee and get measured up. Only at this stage are your details sent through to the Transportation Security Administration for an assessment. If you pass the TSA's tests, you will be sent a card and be able to bypass the queues. You still get checked, but presumably with a "lighter touch" than the rest of us more suspect individuals who have not been pre-screened.
This is not, though, a club to which you are guaranteed lifetime membership. The authorities fear that a terrorist with no previous "form" could enlist and smuggle a weapon through. So: "Your Membership will be continuously reviewed by TSA's ongoing security assessment. If your security status changes, your Membership will be immediately deactivated."
The passport is a 19th-century document trying to do a 21st-century job and, predictably, failing. But its replacement appears to be a miscellany of self-selecting schemes. Now, some travellers are more equal than others.
Privium: www.schiphol.nl/priviumReuse content