IN a concerted effort to speed-up immigration clearance at Kai Tak, the Immigration Department says it will begin installing time-saving swipe machines at the airport this September, capable of intelligently reading travellers' passports and Hong Kong identity cards. The department's computer whizz-kids have been working on developing the technology to enable immigration staff to swipe travellers' identity (ID) cards and new generation passports through an optical censor and save valuable data inputting time. The new-style passports already being introduced in Hong Kong and some other parts of the world, like Europe, have a strip of numbers, letters and shapes running along the bottom of the back page that a computer can read. Immigration officers would still be required to quickly check the pictures against travellers' faces, at least for the time being. Further down the road, the department is considering introducing smart cards with a micro-chip inside carrying the bearers' thumb print. Passengers would then be able to swiftly swipe their cards through a Mass Transit Railway-style computerised turnstile, place their thumbs over a censor and, if the twtment spokesman Eric Chan said question marks had arisen over the security, durability and cost of the cards. He said the department wanted to be 100 per cent certain the smart cards could not be forged before giving the final go-ahead. Should it proceed, the department said it was considering selling the cards to interested frequent travellers, rather than dishing them out wholesale, and only to people resident in Hong Kong. If the cost to customers turned out prohibitive the scheme would have to be shelved. Irrespective of this, ID and passport reading machines - technically known as optical character recognition readers - would start being installed at Kai Tak and other busy entry points into Hong Kong like Lowu, Hunghom, and the Macau and China ferry terminals in September and phased in throughout the territory over the following 12 months. The department's offices will also be fully computerised as part the comprehensive $400 million improvement scheme, aimed at taking it into the 21st Century. Mr Chan said the changes were expected to improve productivity by 10 per cent and free up 600 officers for redeployment elsewhere within the department. He said there would be no mass redundancies. Instead, it would mean extra officers could be allotted to manning immigration booths for foreign visitors with old-style passports and relieve some of the pressure there. Franz Siegenthaler, vice-chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives (BOAR) in Hong Kong, which has been protesting against the long queues at immigration at Kai Tak, welcomed the news. However, he questioned whether enough was being done to relieve the queues for non-residents. The department made a pledge in 1992 to make sure nobody going in or out of Kai Tak would have to wait more than 30 minutes to clear immigration. In spite of working flat out, it had not always been able to keep that promise, particularly at peak times or busy periods like Lunar New Year when travellers frequently found themselves queueing 45 minutes or more. This has been seen by BOAR, and the tourist industry as a whole, as a pretty distasteful first or last impression of Hong Kong. Hong Kong Tourist Association spokesman Penny Byrne said while her organisation was sympathetic to the problems of the department, it was concerned about the immediate impression people had of Hong Kong. Howard Young, Legislative Council representative for tourism, said: ''From a tourism industry point of view, we want to see faster clearance for overseas tourists as well. ''These are the people who are bringing valuable foreign exchange into the territory.''