the business trip

You're the first one off a flight from Frankfurt, in a rush to close another deal, only to find yourself stuck at immigration behind an entire Airbus from Cancún. As the wait drags on you resolve that next time, you'll try Inspass.

What is Inspass? The Immigration and Naturalization Service Passenger Accelerated Service System. It gives eligible business travelers priority processing though immigration at automated airport kiosks in Miami, New York (JFK), Newark, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In Canada, the service is available at pre-clearance centers in Toronto and Vancouver.

Who's eligible? Travelers who take at least three business trips each year to or from the United States and are citizens of the United States, Canada, Bermuda, or any of the 26 countries in the Visa Waiver Pilot Program. VWPP members include most of Western Europe, Argentina, Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, and Slovenia.

How do I enroll? Apply in advance at the Inspass office of an airport listed above. Documents required: a valid passport and INS Form I-823, available at Inspass offices or on the INS Web site ( Inspectors photograph and fingerprint you, register a digital handprint of both of your hands, and run a background check. Processing time averages 15 minutes, and if you're approved you'll be issued a PortPASS card valid for one year. There is no fee.

How does it work? Upon arrival, you slide the PortPASS into the kiosk's computer, enter your flight number, and place your hand on a screen, Star Trek­style, for verification of identity. After confirmation (which takes 25 seconds), the computer prints a receipt and opens a gate to customs.

If Inspass is so great, why don't more people use it? Inspass struggled with technical problems after its debut in 1993. "I enrolled in '96," says one frequent traveler to Latin America, "and when the card worked, it was very convenient. But the systems at JFK and Newark were often down, or my card didn't work, or it had just expired. The offices are open only during business hours, but most of my flights leave after six p.m., so eventually I gave up."

Program director Thomas Andreotta responds that Kennedy and Newark were among the original sites, and they were upgraded in January. He also plans to consolidate JFK's five enrollment centers so they can offer longer hours.

What does the future hold for Inspass? New airport locations are being added in 1999 (Honolulu, Seattle, Washington Dulles) and 2000 (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, Montreal, Orlando, Ottawa, St. Louis). Other changes are being considered: raising the trip minimum to five, but including leisure as well as business travelers; making cards valid for at least two years; charging an enrollment fee. (The fee is almost inevitable, though the INS should make darn sure the program works first.) "Until this time last year," says Andreotta, "we weren't at all certain we'd finally gotten it right. But now it's a lovefest. We're ready to roll this thing out to the world."