Ask Cranky: Is the Clear Program Worthwhile?

Thank you for submitting your questions after the inaugural Ask Cranky column. Please keep them coming . . .

Dear Cranky,

I’ve been reading you a while and I wonder what your experience/opinion is of the Clear program that is now in place at 17 US airports?

Thanks – Bill

Ah yes, the Clear program. This question is very timely since they raised price by more than 50% today. What I originally expected to be a trusted traveler program has become nothing more than a security fast pass. If you’re a member, you can skip to the head of the line. Don’t believe me? Here are the five benefits as listed by Clear.

  • Get through security faster, in under four minutes.
  • Don’t worry about unpredictably long lines.
  • Access a designated security lane with special benefits.
  • Allow our attendants and concierges to help you as you go through the Clear lane.
  • Use your Clear card at airports nationwide.

Ask CrankyFor those keeping score, four of the five just mean that you get to head to the front of the class. The other point does mention that they have attendants to help you get through security. But what it doesn’t say is anything about separate screening equipment or an expedited screening regimen. No, all this does is let you cut in line.

So, let’s start with who doesn’t need this. If you are an elite member with one airline and don’t fly other airlines often or you fly in premium cabins, you probably get the same benefits already. If you’re an infrequent traveler, you’re not going to be able to justify the formerly $128 fee and now whopping $199 for the first year. And if you don’t fly primarily out of one of the 21 Clear airports, then you won’t get any use out of this either.

BUT, if you are one of the few who fly often and aren’t an elite member or you fly on a variety of airlines, this might be interesting for you because it will speed up the security process. Since they aren’t in any LA airports, I’ve never seriously considered it, but even if they were I doubt I’d do it. If you’d like to learn a little more, Benet Wilson has been covering this a lot over at Towers and Tarmacs, including the launch of Clear in Atlanta.


29 Responses to Ask Cranky: Is the Clear Program Worthwhile?

  1. Voyager9270 says:

    If you merely get to cut the line and then go through the exact same security procedures that everyone else does, what is even the point of the background checks and the biometric scans?

  2. CF says:

    Voyager9270 – Great question. I think the point was to allow for an easier screening process, but I don’t think the TSA has allowed that to happen yet. If that happens, well, then it’s a different story altogether.

  3. James says:

    How long does standard security screening take these days anyway?

  4. CF says:

    James – It of course varies by airport, but I rarely see really long lines when I’ve traveled lately. You can play around with this TSA tool showing average wait times:
    http://waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html

  5. james says:

    When I first read this back in January the price was $128. $28 of that going directly to the TSA. I have no problems with airline’s first class lines. People pay money for the privilege of short lines and lounges – however it rubs me wrong way that the government (TSA) is partnering and profiting from this private company’s endeavor. The TSA’s job should be to screen me. Period – nothing more and nothing less.

    I travel frequently throughout the year and do many weekend trips where time is a factor. Even if the Clear Pass was $10 I’d still decline. I just don’t feel they merit reason to keep my fingerprints and iris scan on file. The TSA nor a private company.

    Another recent development: the Clear program is expanding beyond simply gathering data and giving you a pass. Here in Denver they’ve partnered with the Broncos allowing early stadium access and merchandise discounts.

    http://www.flyclear.com/news_pr/pr/pr_081908.html

    So to increase sales and marketing we may just see the Clear Pass morph into something like the Gold C coupon book – where you can flash it around town getting discounts to shows, restaurants, and events.

    That I find almost as strange as the need to collect my iris scan.

  6. Oliver says:

    I am with James. It seems very strange to see all these different ways to get preferential treatment in publicly owned and funded airports. Will the DMV allow me to set up a “fast lane” for a small cut of my revenue? What about public toll bridges like the Golden Gate bridge — can I get one of the lanes and charge extra for faster service? ;)

    Now, I assume that the airlines have to pay the airport for the privilege to set up fast lanes for security clearance. Does “Clear” then sublease their rights from the airlines? It would be interesting to see an article hear clarifying how this generally works, especially at airports like LAS where one security checkpoint serves many different airlines (who all apply their own criteria for the priority lane)

  7. CF says:

    Oliver – Actually, there are more and more roads out there with toll lanes. Look at the 91 in Southern California. If you pay, you get to ride in the fast lanes.

    But I still get your point. I’m not sure how the Clear model works when dealing with the airports, but I would assume that they have a deal directly with the TSA.

  8. james says:

    To the other James: Over the past two months I’ve also seen NO lines. Less that 5-6 people ahead of me. This may be my preference for really early morning flights, but at LAX, Tampa, and Denver (twice on Friday afternoon,) I haven’t even had time to stuff my keys in my bag before I’m at the xray.

    I try and abstain from traveling on holiday weekends – but that leads to another question: If business travelers are like myself, traveling Friday afternoons and early-mid mornings, why even bother BUYING the pass? Unless its simply for contingency.

    If air travel is on the decline and peak times aren’t busy, then its just a scary marketing ploy by Clear to paint the regular airport lines as third world chaotic nightmares.

  9. DC says:

    Cranky –

    Don’t forget about Clear losing an unencrypted laptop with subscriber information in August.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,398161,00.html

    As long as we in the US stick with the 80’s mantra that “Government run is automatically bad. Privately run is automatically good” we are easy prey for scams like Clear. Maybe a good side-effect of the financial collapse would be to teach us to think critically again and demand more from our lawmakers.

  10. bryan says:

    I am a Clear card member and I can tell you that on at least two occasions it has made the difference between making a flight and missing it. With change fees the way they are these days, that in itself has paid for the membership.

  11. Oliver says:

    Bryan, last time I went through SFO I was just about to put my laptop on the scanner belt when a CLEAR employee came with one of their customers and asked to squeeze in. I wasn’t in any particular hurry or looking for an argument, so I just said “Sure”, but I wonder what her response would have been if I had said “No way, I am next”. Maybe I’ll try next time :)

  12. Al B says:

    Oliver:

    Is that their MO? If that happens to me, I’ll be asking for my cut … otherwise check with the person behind me.

  13. Oliver says:

    Yes… Seems like a recipe for conflicts when the hurried business traveler at the front of the line gets asked to step back.

  14. AN says:

    The current economy is one of the reasons that airports are ghost towns these days. I fly in and out of DTW a lot, and you could roll several bowling balls down the NWA terminal without hitting a person – even in the afternoon/evenings. Eventually, when there’s an economy again, security lines will be longer, and this might make more sense.

  15. zb says:

    James (9:37) and Oliver, I could not agree more. TSA are doing government work by applying what laws say and I see no way why citizens who pay more should get better treatment than others who are, um, just…, yes: citizens.

    Wikipedia says that “All men are created equal” is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America’s political documents. “Best-known” obviously doesn’t mean that the TSA have ever heard of it, ant this I find sickening.

  16. bryan says:

    Oliver, you do make an excellent point but it wasn’t always that way. Up until recently, you only got to the TSA document checker sooner, not to the security belt. I view that as the same as having a “preferred access” line and that was good enough for me. Now that the Clear folks can validate IDs like TSA, the bumping now occurs in the bin area. I must admit that I always feel weird when they insert me into the line ahead of other people with their items already in bins. I see how some people with inflated egos get a power trip off it. Not saying it is right, just lending my perspective.

  17. Bob says:

    1) TSA as of last summer no longer receives a cut of anything (google it), and it was never an amount that mattered to them, anyway. It was simply meant to defray the cost of the initial applicant screening processes.

    2) One can always find an airport/terminal/time when lines are low; travel as I do 100,000-plus miles a year, and you will see very quickly the benefits of having a Clear card, even if you are already a premium flyer with airline X. If you don’t travel a lot, then you are not the target market.

    3) Stadium programs are only just beginning, but will likely grow very quickly. Season ticket holders, regular attendees, etc., will have a different entry experience. And they should. Here’s why…. whether it be at an airport, a sports arena, convention center, train station, etc., the one certainty with a holder of a biometric Clear card is that the holder is literally one of the ONLY persons in the building whose ID is definitive. In the case of airports, more is known about that person than is known about many of the airport employees with relatively free access. Holders of the card have voluntarily sacrificed privacy (not just paid some money) in order to have this advantage. It is not an act of ‘tipping’ a maitre ‘d to get to the front of the line: If you do not have a Clear card you MAY be John Smith; if you do, you ARE John Smith. That is worth quite a bit in terms of security. Ask anyone in the TSA, DHS, FBI, you name it. Normal ID’s (gov issue or not) are easily forgeable; biometrics are not.

    4) As for the line, the question about “mind if I squeeze in” was rhetorical and polite. Clear personnel are uniformed, trained individuals who coordinate closely with their TSA counterparts at the security checkpoint. If they ask you to stop, stop you will. You could make a scene, but as with any screening area, you will promptly draw the attention of the TSA agents, and it is unlikely you will be happy with that outcome. Actually, these experiences probably just drive sales.

    5) yeah, the Clear guys are late in getting their own screening equipment, etc. It will come. In the meantime, their customers wait for something like 3 minutes or less. Compare that with the normal experience at many checkouts around the country, whether you are in a premium line or not.

    6) I read about the laptop thing. Shit happens. How many millions of records were lost at Experian? What about TJX? 46 million or something? Turns out the Clear records weren’t lost at all. They found the laptop, and there wasn’t much data (and no biometrics) on it, anyway. Still, they need to be more careful, as does everyone.

    And no, I do not work for the company. I do have the card, and use it frequently. I always feel a bit funny when I am brought to the front of the line, but have never had anything but polite inquiries into what the program is from those momentarily stopped.

  18. Dan says:

    I have been a Clear member since 2005 when it was only at Orlando, and have seen the rate go from $79 to the current $159.

    $159 is my breaking point on the price. I am a Delta Gold Medallion, and travel frequently, but, I just don’t think i’ll use the lanes enough to justify spending almost $200 a year on the program.

  19. John says:

    Further diluting Clear’s value is the implementation of the “Black Diamond Self Select Lanes” by the TSA at 44 airports so far(http://www.tsa.gov/approach/black_diamond.shtm). I elect this lane wherever present and I’ve found very little traffic in it. Strangely enough, this shortcut has not attracted the masses who are apparently content to sit in the casual or family lanes. I couldn’t justify the old $128 knowing that for free (at more airports than Clear serves), I can get virtually the same experience.

  20. David SF east bay says:

    Maybe they raised the price so people wouldn’t sign up for it. The more people that sign up the less of an advantage the program is. The non-clear passengers would not stand for a bunch of people cutting in front of them as the money they spent on tickets is the same money everyone paid. No one likes people going in front of them after they have been waiting, so unless there is a separate private clear security line the system won’t work with a lot of people using clear.

  21. QRC says:

    Bob,

    Good points, but I don’t understand why exactly confirming someone’s ID is cause to cut the line. You bring up really valid arguments…aka the ONLY way you really can confirm these people’s IDS is via biometrics…but why again should those passengers who have confirmed their biometrics be able to go first? Aka, if the you’re really concerned about terrorists or people with fake IDs getting in, why not improve the relatively shoddy system in place for verifying regular people’s IDs? I just don’t understand the linkage between confirming someone’s ID and getting a fast pass to the front of the line.

    I DO agree with the idea of allowing someone to pay to get to the front, it’s basic economics. That idea I like and think it could be used to generate more revenues. If the airlines have to compensate the TSA for their services, then the airlines should get a cut as well (given as the ticketholders are their customers). I’m just not sure what biometrics have to do with line-jumping.

    My only qualm for the pay-to-play system is if the airlines have to pay a large chunk of the TSA’s costs (which I’m not sure about). If that’s the case then I think the airlines (not the govt) should have the right to give priority to whoever they want, whether they give it to elites, sell it as an add-on, etc.

  22. David says:

    A Couple of points about Clear:
    1. Whether it is worth it depends on the security waits at your home airport. I can tell you that Monday mornings in Atlanta the Elite/1st Class security line averages a 45 minute wait. At EWR, Delta does not have a 1st/Elite security line, so it is worth it there. Your individual results may vary.
    2. I would guess that with Marriott and Hyatt offering a free year of Clear to their best customers, about as many people actually pay for Clear as pay for USA Today. The real test will be in the second year when people have to fork over their own money.

  23. KC says:

    Re: Dan – Exactly the way I feel. I remember thinking the $79 price point to zip through security was attractive enough for me to give up some of my privacy.

    Anything above $100, though, seems too much to me. And like CF mentioned, it seems like it will only help so many frequent flyers, as they’re often already covered.

    Interestingly enough, in Denver it usually takes me between 10-15 minutes to get through security. While I was waiting in line two weeks ago, I looked over at the Clear section (which at DEN has its own security screeners, etc) and noticed that no one went through it, the WHOLE time I was there. Granted, this was on a Friday morning, but still.

    Makes you wonder how jacking up the prices is going to help them grow the program – it would seem volume would be their goal, seeing as how the high-priced-luxury end of the market is already being served. I certainly won’t become a member, at this point.

  24. zb says:

    QRC, you say: “I DO agree with the idea of allowing someone to pay to get to the front, it’s basic economics.”

    This is exactly what gives me an headache. The TSA’s job, in the first place, is putting a law to work. They are doing nothing else than law enforcement a.k.a. a police job. At least with the basic idea of how police should work, there is just absolutely no way how different people pay different fees to get different treatment by different police officers. We all know that in some cases, reality works different and money matters. And with Clear, the ‘money matters’ feature is not just a strange side effect of being biased by wealth or plain bribery — the ‘money matters’ feature is already installed in the system. Look at it from the TSA’s and Clear’s side: They are dealing with their paying customers and this is in contrast with making sure everyone gets looked at the same way for the sake of everyone’s safety.

    One of the most important ideas behind free societies is the system of Separation of Powers, wherein one job of the executive branch must faithfully put the laws into action. Paying money and thus having an influence on how the law is put into action in your own personal case will be a step towards corrupting one of the very important mechanisms of a free society.

    BTW, before anyone starts calling me a ‘commie’, please read your old history books from High School and think again why freedom is such an important, basic issue in a democratic society and what requirements there are for freedom to work. This will also be helpful.

  25. Bob says:

    QRC,

    The reason the TSA does not know for sure if people are who they say they are is because we have no national identity system in place, and thus far any attempt to build one has been shut down by groups like the ACLU and congress members who oppose such standards. A national identity system would necessarily rely on some form of biometric, as it is the only way to truly know who someone is.

    This is what makes Clear members ‘preferred’ travelers. They are who they say they are. On the other hand, those that are members have given up some degree of privacy – the quid pro quo for having superior access.

  26. Ed says:

    I have been a Clear member for almost a year now and will not be renewing. The program is a joke. If there are no long lines for the initial TSA boarding pass and I.D. screen, Clear poses no advantage at all – in fact, it adds an extra step, the biometrics, to the process. Then you have to go through the same process as every one else, with no dedicated lines for screening. Hardly worth it – unless one has money to burn for no real advantage. The first couple of times I went through it, I thought to myself, “man, am I a sucker”.

  27. David SFeastbay says:

    Since Clear shut down unexpectly last night the buzz now is what happens to all the personal data people gave them and the money they paid for the program. The money is not the important thing, but the personal data is.

    I watched the San Francisco airport manager on the news and he said they only found out last night when TSA notified them that Clear would shut down at 11pm Pacific Time. I wonder how many people this morniing showed up around the country at the last minute thinking their Clear card would speed things along only to find themselves at the back of a long line.

    If someone new comes in to take their place, would anyone now trust them?

  28. CF says:

    David SF – The WSJ Middle Seat Terminal has a great piece on this today. According to the former head of Clear, Steve Brill, the data is held by Lockheed Martin and the TSA can reclaim the data if they so choose. It can’t be used for any other purpose, however.

  29. David SFeastbay says:

    Well that’s good to know, that should rest a lot of peoples minds on where their personal info is. Thanks Cranky

Join the Conversation

*