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Minn. airport starts advance security checks

ST. PAUL -- A select group of frequent fliers is getting a chance to bypass extra security inspections at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but to do that they must submit to background checks in advance.

Today, Minnesota's largest airport becomes the first in the country to start signing up a handpicked group of people for a 90-day pilot program for the Transportation Security Administration.

Only frequent fliers contacted by Northwest Airlines are eligible. Northwest spokesman Thomas Becher said 1,600 people had expressed interest as of Friday, and only 30 of those contacted were not interested.

"Clearly, it's in our interest and our passengers' interest to make air travel a more efficient experience," he said.

The TSA wants to sign up 2,000 people to participate, said spokeswoman Amy Von Walter.

The agency announced this month that the trial program would begin at the Twin Cities airport before expanding to Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington.

The TSA could expand the program nationally based on the tests results and funding, spokesman Mark Hatfield said.

Participants in the pilot program will be required to give the government their name, address, phone number, birth date, and "biometric identifiers," including fingerprint and iris scan. That information will be matched against law enforcement and intelligence databases, such as the terrorist watch list.

Starting sometime in July, participants will be able to pass through a special lane at one of the airport's security checkpoints.

They will not be able to bypass the metal detector and screens for carry-on bags, but would avoid more intensive secondary screening if they do not set off any security devices.

Passengers now are subject to these checks if a security alarm registers or if a computer-assisted screening program detects something unusual -- a one-way ticket or ticket bought with cash, for example.

The test program is free for the volunteers, but if the program is expanded nationally, registered travelers could expect to a pay a fee to cover administrative costs, officials have said.

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