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VIP fliers hurry up and wait a little less

PDX security express line bugs some, gets shrugs from others

Tired of those long airport security lines?

Fly first class. Or become a frequent flier. Or head for Seattle on Horizon Air.

Passengers who choose those options get to cut to the front of the line at the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at Portland International Airport.

The express line, as it's called, lets preferred fliers Ñ those in first class and those who travel frequently Ñ reach security in three or four minutes, maybe faster, even during the busiest airport rush hours.

Coach passengers generally have to wait at least 15 minutes.

A similar process can be found in front of some ticket counters where federal agents inspect checked luggage before passengers check in. At some airline counters, the federal agents set up separate desks to serve first-class passengers.

Express lines allow the airlines to add a little passenger convenience to the inconvenient new security demands of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. Preferential treatment means easing the inevitable increase in delays for their most important and lucrative passengers: frequent business travelers, the bread and butter of the airlines.

But the federal government's role in expediting preferred travelers doesn't sit well with some passengers. They say the TSA, a federal agency designated by Congress to handle airport security, should treat all passengers the same.

'Yeah, it does bother me,' said Derek Kren, a U.S. Air Force psychologist returning home to San Antonio from Portland last week. 'If they want to set up separate lines for checking in to the plane, I can live with that. But preferential treatment by the federal government? That's not right. When the government gets involved, all those perks should go out the window.'

Others, however, say fair is fair, that passengers who pay more deserve more, even from federal employees.

'If you have the money to buy it, well, this country is certainly into that,' said Linda Conway of Southeast Portland. 'I'd want that if I had the money.'

Federal officials said they're not playing favorites.

'The airlines control the lines going into security checkpoints,' said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. 'How they get there is up to them.

'Every passenger is treated equally,' he said. 'They're all subject to the same amount of security. We have to work with the airlines and airports to make sure everybody's providing the utmost security. As part of that, TSA has to recognize they have a need for premier lines, and we have to respect that.'

Port of Portland spokesman Steve Johnson also said that all passengers are screened the same way.

'They all get the same security check,' he said.

Portland's express lanes came into being as a result of the Portland airport security talks that started a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks among the Port of Portland (which runs the airport), federal officials and the airlines.

Right away, Johnson said, the airlines knew that increased security was here to stay and would bring delays for their frequent business travelers, a crucial constituency. The express lane was devised to move first-class passengers and frequent fliers to their gates more quickly.

When the feds took over the security checkpoints last year, PDX retained the express lanes. Fliers may find similar arrangements at other airports because each airport, in consultation with the airlines and federal officials, develops its own plan for how passengers reach security, Melendez said.

United Airlines, for example, offers what it calls priority security checkpoint lines at nine of its biggest operations, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The United system allows first class, coach class and various levels of frequent fliers an express line through federal security. But the priority lines are often found only at concourses that exclusively serve United, such as Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Similar express lines can be found at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport for first-class passengers, families with small children and the disabled.

However, a nonprofit aviation group says airlines are not supposed to be involved with security.

'This is not a matter of queuing people up for the ticket counter,' said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader in 1971.

'The TSA may allow this, but clearly the airport is a public space,' Hudson said. 'They're in effect allowing private carriers to control the system. They're supposed to be completely out of it.'

Frequent fliers and first-class passengers aren't the only ones who can use the express lines in Portland. In the post-Sept. 11 talks, Horizon Air won expedited access for its Portland-Seattle shuttle customers. The airline operates Portland's only shuttle service, with 31 flights a day to Seattle.

The airline's regular passengers depend heavily on the service and deserve the special treatment, said Horizon spokeswoman Cheryl Temple.

The port, the feds and the other airlines agreed.

'It's not a secret,' Temple said. 'Business travelers often rely on air travel for their livelihood. This solution seems to work well. We're very pleased. The more you can shave off your travel time makes all the difference in the world.'

Double tracks

The local control and the airline influence can be seen at Portland's two major security checkpoints. There are many similarities in the way the two concourses feed passengers to the checkpoints. But they're not the same.

PDX has two concourses: the south concourse, with the A, B and C gates, and the north concourse, with the D and E gates. Each has two entry points staffed by either an airline employee or a private security company. This is where passengers show their boarding passes and line up for security screening.

On each concourse, there's one line for coach and a separate, express line for first class, upscale frequent fliers and, on the south concourse only, for the Horizon shuttle. Both lines feed to the security screening kiosks staffed by the federal TSA agents.

On the north concourse, coach passengers must wade through a series of Disneyland-like switchbacks to reach the security checkpoint. The express lane, though, feeds passengers, virtually without waiting, directly to a security kiosk. If no one is lined up in the express line, a federal agent may direct a coach passenger over to that kiosk. But that happens only intermittently.

On the south concourse, the coach line and the shorter express line terminate next to each other, directly in front of the bank of eight security kiosks. There, a federal agent acts as a wrangler, waving passengers from both lines to the kiosk with the shortest wait.

The methods used by the wrangler, though, aren't always the same. On some days, the wrangler seems to give preference to the express line passengers, waving them through while coach passengers wait. On other days, the TSA wrangler treats the express line and coach line passengers the same.

Trusted travelers?

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Aviation, has proposed creation of what he calls a trusted travelers program. Under his plan, travelers could undergo background checks and receive a special ID card that would provide a faster trip through security.

The proposal has been approved by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is awaiting approval by the full House.

The proposal leaves the details to the Department of Homeland Security, but the process could involve a separate security line, said Kristie Greco, DeFazio's press secretary.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who goes through at least two and sometimes four or five airports on most weekends, said the express lines illustrate the uncertainty in airport security systems. He said that on most every trip he wears the same belt, shoes and watch, but he's treated in wildly different ways. Sometimes they check his belt, shoes and watch. Sometimes they don't.

'As somebody who spends hours and hours getting wanded, I've been worried for a long time that we don't have a uniform system,' he said. 'It's not well thought out. Presumably, somebody with an ID as a member of Congress is a little less risk of carrying a bomb. It's fascinating how uneven the system is.'

Passengers, though, may expect fairness but don't often mind if you can buy a little special treatment.

'They pay a higher price, so it's fair,' said Neil Thomas of Milwaukie, while awaiting a flight from PDX.

'It's probably fair if they pay the price,' agreed David Rowe of Toronto, while standing in a long coach line. 'But just don't show me.'

He looked wistfully at the adjacent express line. 'You hate to see an empty line like that.'