As a security consultant I do quite a bit of travel for my job. It’s something I enjoy immensely, but standing in airport security lines can quickly taint the experience.
For this reason I’ve looked into the various ways to speed up going through airport security, and I’ve captured and given some input on a few of the options below:
Clear is a great option if you live in either San Francisco or Orlando. San Francisco is my home airport, so it’s definitely on my list of musts.
How It Works
Clear is a private company that screens applicants and issues a specialized identification card with biometric (retina scan) information on it. Participating airports have a completely separate line for Clear travelers, and you simply go to the attendant, show your card, authenticate with a finger print, and you get taken to the front of the security line.
Right now only a few airports are doing Clear: Orlando, San Francisco, Denver, and Dallas/Ft. Worth.
Enrollment in Clear leverages pre-existing authentication–namely your passport and another type of official identification, e.g. driver’s license, state ID, military ID, etc.
The cost is $179 a year, and it’s only $50 to add someone else onto your account.
This is the system I have the most experience with and I absolutely love it. It does get a bit uncomfortable, however, when the regular line is a massive maze of nearly a hundred people, and you just walk to the front within seconds. The attendant even asks you how many bins you need and walks you right to the belt themselves. Minus the feelings of guilt (which are coupled with relief), it’s a great experience.
The TSA’s PreCheck program works much differently from Clear in that it is more “official” and less predictable in its operation. It already enjoys far more adoption at airports (with more being added constantly), but the process of getting into the system and actually using it is somewhat nebulous.
How It Works
First of all, you have to be invited to even be able to apply. You’ll receive some sort of invite from one of your carriers (my invite came from United where I have elite status) and they’ll send you to the TSA site to apply.
This is where it gets interesting: rather than tell you you got in or didn’t get in, you instead are told to just go the TSA Booth at the airport when you arrive for your flight, and when you scan your ticket they’ll tell you if you can go to the Expidited Screening line.
If you are cleared for this, here are the advantages:
- You won’t have to remove your shoes
- You won’t have to remove a 3-1-1 bag from carry-on
- You won’t have to remove your laptop
- You can keep a light jacket on
- You can keep your belt on
An interesting key to this is that the security information is integrated into the barcode on your ticket, i.e. there’s no external bit like with Clear, which I think is a major advantage.
What’s a bit strange, but understandable, about the system is that there’s no such concept as pre-approved. You can’t tell from your ticket if you’re approved or not, which makes sense given that it’d be a major security flaw if that were the case. But this means that every time you go up to the desk you could go to the fast lane or get sent to the back of the regular line. You don’t ever know beforehand.
It’s obvious why this is done, but it does create unpredictability, which is precisely what we’re trying to eliminate by taking the security line out of the equation.
PreCheck enjoys decent adoption at this point, with the following airports participating.
As mentioned above, enrollment is invite-based and comes from the airlines themselves. Look in your mail (don’t forget junk mail) for something tagged as TSA and PreCheck.
There is no cost for this program, as it’s basically an extension of the TSA’s regular rules. They’re essentially trying to make things more efficient and improve the perception of the TSA in the same way that they did with relaxing the rules on younger and older people with roughly the same lighter screening options.
I’m already signed up for this system although I’ve not yet used it. I feel like there is every reason to sign up for it, but if I go to an airport that has both Clear and PreCheck, I’ll be using Clear. Why? Because it’s truly a pre-screening that’s guaranteed to get me through the line very quickly. The TSA model is still subject to their algorithms and (likely) glitches that are less likely to affect Clear.
Global Entry is another U.S. Government system designed to expedite travel through airport security, but it’s oriented around international travel rather than domestic. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of Homeland Security.
How It Works
With Global Entry, users can self-authenticate using hand/fingerprint machines that allow them to bypass the security line.
The number of airports is pretty decent for this program.
Enrollment is done by submitting an application to the program via online form or snail mail.
There is a $100 application fee, but the program itself is free because, just as with PreCheck, the concept is actually an extension of standard security procedures for low-risk travelers.
I’ve not used this system yet, but I am going to go ahead and apply so that I have the option to get through line faster when traveling internationally as well.
Summary and Recommendations
- If you frequently fly out of one of the Clear airports, definitely get a Clear card
- Look out for an invite into the PreCheck program from your preferred airline
- If you do any amount of international travel, consider applying for Global Entry as well