Our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy have changed.

By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

Flying in the Fast Lane

New services promise to zip you through airport security. Are they for real?

By Saheli Datta, Business 2.0 Magazine writer-reporter

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- John Welch, an IT manager at Charles Schwab (Charts) in Florida, has one key goal in mind when he heads out on a business trip: to get to his boarding gate at Orlando International Airport as quickly as possible. Until last year he could never tell if the morning rush through security would be a nightmare or a breeze. Then he joined Clear, a new service that claims to zip customers through security in about three minutes.

So what does Welch's $100-a-year Clear membership get him? A biometric ID that tells security screeners he's passed a background check and isn't on a government terrorist watch list, and a free ride to the front of the security checkpoint line that every passenger must pass through. "I hate standing in lines," he says, "especially when I could be sleeping."

Services like Clear are springing up as the result of a Transportation Security Administration initiative, called Registered Traveler, designed to help speed up the screening process in the wake of post-9/11 chaos. Five airports, including New York's JFK and California's San Jose International, now offer Registered Traveler programs, and about 20 more are considering them. Clear, with some 36,000 paying customers, is the only operation currently up and running, but technology giant Unisys intends to debut its service in Reno, Nev., by summer, and at least three other companies are planning to join the fray. Notably, per TSA regulations, members of one vendor must be allowed access to kiosks operated by competitors.

There's one compelling reason to join a Registered Traveler service: predictability. Welch now knows he can get an extra 45 minutes of shut-eye when he flies from Orlando. Membership offers little else: His zip-top bag of liquids and his laptop are still inspected, and even his ID card is no guarantee that he won't be randomly searched. But don't think he's complaining. "I love it," he says of his Clear membership.

And his perks will only improve. Clear, for instance, has recently begun rolling out an advanced explosives detector that scans irises to verify members' identities while simultaneously checking their shoes for bombs. Once the scans are complete, travelers can pass through security without showing IDs or having to remove footwear. Clear is installing the shoe scanners at all five airports in which it operates and soon will have similar scanning technology that allows members to keep their coats on. Eventually, all Registered Traveler vendors are expected to have full-body scanners--long before the non-paying public gets to use them.

To be sure, Registered Traveler programs have yet to be fully tested in a terrorist attack or the kind of threat that wreaks havoc on security checkpoints. But Henry Morgan, a regional sales manager for Highline Products and a Clear member in Orlando, isn't bothered. "This," he says, "is the best thing to come along for the frequent traveler in years." Top of page

To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.