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airport security pass needs clarification

By enelson
Friday, February 29th, 2008 at 10:10 pm in air travel, Security.

clear-comes-to-town.jpg

As I fretted over the finishing touches to my opus on the Tao of freeway ramp metering lights for Sunday’s papers, I got an e-mail from Clear, the company that promises a sort of FasTrak version of airport security.

Funny thing about this phenomenon. The media loves these guys, although I’m not sure people truly understand what’s offered by Clear, now at 12 airports including San Francisco International and San Jose’s Mineta International, and Clear’s smaller competitors, who operate at only Reno and Jacksonville.

The news release, which was quickly followed by a copy conveyed by my editor asking me to do a short article about it, announced that Clear had opened an enrollment counter at Oakland International in anticipation of opening its Clear Lanes toward the end of March.

It sounds like a great idea, and it may well be someday.

Your security-worthiness gets pre-approved by the Transportation Security Administration, and you bypass airport security hassles.

But I decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with Clear’s spokesperson in New York, despite the fact that I could have written three paragraphs from the release and fulfilled my immediate journalistic obligation.

But Clear’s half-blue, half transparent card with an embedded data chip is hardly FasTrak. It’s more like a cash lane where the toll taker is always really nice and the lines are always very short.

Despite having to submit to fingerprint scans, eyeball scans and a TSA background check, you still have to endure the slings and arrows of the airline ticket counter, if for some security snafu, you can’t buy tickets online and use quick check-in.

“We have tried hard to interest the TSA with coordinating databases,” said Clear’s PR person, Cindy Rosenthal. Clear, founded by Court TV creator and author/journalist/lawyer Steven Brill, has even tried to get people removed from the TSA’s legendary “no-fly” list.

The list has ensnared Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ wife, who has the unfortunate nickname of Cat and was once confused with the namesake folksinger who changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Sen. Ted Kennedy also got into trouble, but I’m not sure what could prevent that from happening.

But no dice so far.

There is the advantage of bypassing the line. One of the reasons Oakland Airport officials said they were slow to agree do the Clear thing was that they couldn’t see much advantage to the service. But the passengers clamored for it.

After shelling out $28 to cover TSA’s one-time background check fee (a bargain, if you ask me) and $100 a year, Clear cardholders still have to doff their footwear, scan their luggage and walk through a metal detector that may or may not pick up their belt buckle, rings and watch. Clear’s been waiting two years for TSA to decide whether to allow a shoe scanner to let people keep their shoes.

But you can’t argue with success. I’ve yet to run into anyone who doesn’t like the service, which is expanding in mid-March to cover the Washington, D.C.-area’s Reagan National and Washington Dulles airports.

One guy I interviewed for a package of stories on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, who shares Islamic first and last names with a no-fly lister, swears by Clear. He even chose a more complicated itinerary out of San Jose until SFO picked up the service.

After talking to Clear’s media rep, it seemed to me that their biggest selling point is what they might become in the future. They will most certainly cover more airports, they might have a shoe scanner and, inshallah, they might put those iris scans to good use by eliminating no-fly hassles someday.

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8 Responses to “airport security pass needs clarification”

  1. DensityDuck Says:

    Of course, this begs the question of A: just how low is the TSA’s funding, that it doesn’t already work this way, and B: why, if shoe-scanners are permissible, we don’t have them already.

    PS Where’s that metering lights story going to be? Personally I think that metering lights aren’t the source of the problem, but I can’t deny that they do have a positive effect on traffic flow.

    The source of the problem, of course, is the fact that California flat damn refuses to teach highway-driving skills. As a result you have people tailgating at 15 miles an hour next to an on-ramp; therefore anyone who wants to merge has to brake, which–of course!–sets the meathead behind him to braking, and so on and so forth until there’s a massive traffic jam for no reason.

    (Caltrans’s prediliction for the “weave merge” doesn’t help matters.)

    Unfortunately, there’s no way to really enforce spacing between cars. Any solution will be massively technological, and easily subverted just by defeating (damaging, altering, or simply removing) the installation.

    (For example, a proximeter in the front of the car that links to a central database; if you’re less than 30 yards from the car in front, you pay $1 per minute. If you’re less than 10 yards from the car in front it’s $3 per minute. Sounds good, but the obvious solution is to just point the proximeter straight up…)

  2. DensityDuck Says:

    And actually, now that I think about it, “CLEAR” is basically a “Lexus Lane” for the airport. It’s the same check everyone else gets, but you pay a little extra to have it go faster.

    That said, I’ve got no problem with the idea of Lexus Lanes. (Indeed, here in California we’ve basically got them already–although it’s more of a Prius Passage.)

  3. David Says:

    The media probably loves CLEAR partly because the media loves Steve Brill.

    No one doesn’t like the service? What about all the people waiting in long lines who don’t have the disposable income to shell out $100 a month? Are TSA employees manning the CLEAR lines? If so, then it sounds like devoting staff and space to the CLEAR lines must reduce the staff and space available to everyone else, causing second-class citizens to have to wait even longer. That’s the only reservation I have about this kind of service. It’s one thing for private companies to offer luxury service to the wealthy, but should our government be doing it?

  4. David Says:

    The short article about this in the Tribune says $100 a year, while this blog post says $100 a month. That’s a big difference! If it’s $100 a year, that obviously reduces some of the concern I expressed in my last comment.

  5. Mike Says:

    It’s $100 per year. The CLEAR program provides some of the staff, although there are still TSA people once you merge into the regular line. It’s really mostly queue jumping at this point, although there is hope it will mean the end of shoe removal and the like.

    I use a similar program to enter Canada. I can save an hour or more when the immigration lines are backed up. A quick Iris scan, a few questions and I am on my way to baggage and the customs exit.

  6. Reedman Says:

    If I remember correctly, the CLEAR program was supposed to be run by the TSA, but the TSA got buried in implementing the basic screening (especially after the Richard Reid episode) and TSA proposed/agreed to turn the idea over to private industry.

  7. Regular Amtrak Rider Says:

    CC: How do I e-mail you?

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Sorry, Amtrak Rider, I was on vacation when you posted your comment and I’ve been swamped this week. The address is enelson@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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