Biometric Screening Being Considered for St. Louis Airport

Lambert International Airport could soon begin offering CLEAR biometric screenings, which identify passengers based on their fingerprints and irises. The service is offered at 34 airports around the country.

by Mark Schlinkmann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / January 10, 2020
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(TNS) — Biometric screening may soon be in place at St. Louis Lambert International Airport to get passengers through security lines a bit faster. But they’ll have to pay up to $179 a year for that privilege.

The city Airport Commission on Wednesday endorsed a contract with a New York-based company to bring its CLEAR biometric system to Lambert.

It was among several actions taken at the first meeting of the panel since Mayor Lyda Krewson announced on Dec. 20 that she was dropping the city’s controversial consideration of leasing Lambert to private operators.

The biometric service, which identifies people by their fingerprints and irises, already is offered at 34 airports around the country.

People who buy the service show up at a CLEAR kiosk in the terminal, go through the screening and then are escorted by an employee through a special line leading to the Transportation Security Administration employee checking documents.

After showing their boarding pass, they go through security screening like everyone else, whether they’re in a regular line or in an expedited TSA pre-check line. Passengers already pay $85 for five years for TSA pre-check status.

“It just makes the travel process that much easier,” Mitch Nadler, a vice president with Alclear LLC, owner and operator of the CLEAR platform, told the commission. “You go up to the document checker quicker. Nothing about the physical screening changes.”

Samuel Jenkins, one commission member, said: “So the people who are in the TSA precheck line, I’m going to get in front of them? They’re going to be pissed.”

Jenkins, however, said later that “I’m all for it” after hearing a detailed explanation.

Under the contract, the company will pay Lambert $66,000 a year plus 10% of the fees paid by residents of the metro area and more than 40 other Missouri and Illinois counties who sign up.

However, Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said for Lambert, “it’s more of a consumer convenience” than a way to bring the airport more revenue. “We’re excited to bring it,” she said.

Hamm-Niebruegge said the service has mainly been used so far at larger hub airports and has been expanding to medium-sized airports such as Lambert. She said Cincinnati’s airport got the service a few months ago, for example.

Nadler said his company hopes to begin operating in Lambert’s two terminals in the next few months. The three-year contract still needs approval from the city Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

While the standard fee is $179, Nadler said, people in loyalty programs with United Airlines and Delta Air Lines pay nothing or get a discounted rate, depending on what level of membership they have.

Lambert officials said they didn’t put this service out for competitive bidding because only AlClear had responded when other airports went through that process.

Jim Gregory, a TSA spokesman, said Thursday that it hasn’t been decided yet how the CLEAR process will be affected when the federal agency on Oct. 1 begins requiring every traveler to present a federally compliant REAL ID card before boarding.

At issue is how to handle CLEAR members who haven’t used a REAL ID card to sign up for the service. More identifying documents are required to get a REAL ID card than for many older driver's licenses.

“We are working with CLEAR to determine how that process works,” Gregory said.

The commission also briefly discussed what happens now after the demise of the privatization idea, which is expected to be officially killed at a meeting of the estimate board next Wednesday.

Hamm-Niebruegge said that Lambert has resumed seeking competitive bids when existing contracts with vendors expire, usually for three-year periods.

While privatization was under consideration, the city had imposed a partial freeze on seeking bids and instead extended current agreements by a year or so at a similar price.

That was done, Lambert officials had said, because various companies might not want to submit bids given the uncertainty over what would happen with privatization.

Commission member Rik Nemanick asked whether a new Lambert strategic plan will now be devised. Hamm-Niebruegge agreed that the current five-year plan, which runs through June, needs updating and that she and other city officials would discuss how to proceed.

“We had the whole region involved in the last go-round,” she said. “I think we could look at doing the same thing.”

Hamm-Niebruegge said plans call for most documents compiled by the city committee that studied privatization, the Airport Advisory Working Group, to be released.

But Mario Pandolfo, Lambert’s attorney, said there would be exceptions, such as information related to litigation. And for public safety reasons, he said, information on Lambert access points and specifications for its facilities would be kept private.

Asked by one commissioner about efforts to get more international flights, Hamm-Niebruegge said she has been negotiating with some local organizations she would not name to try to get dollar guarantees to offer to airlines that might offer such routes.

The St. Louis County Port Authority in 2017 had approved offering up to $5 million to try to lure regular air service to continental Europe but that was dropped earlier this year.

The authority also had committed $600,000 for Wow Air flights to Iceland but those incentives were never paid, and that company ended up discontinuing those flights after just a few months.

©2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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