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June 23, 2009

Clear Registered Travel Program Shuts Down

The lights are out on Clear.
Photo: .schill on Flickr courtesy of
Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

Clear, the biggest private-sector "registered traveler" program in the nation, shut down suddenly last night, and a quarter of a million customers are waiting to find out whether their cards will ever get them out of security-line hell again. (It's not looking too good right now.) The biggest mystery is not why it failed, but why it hung on as long as it did given the open hostility to the venture displayed by both the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines.

I was one of the those customers--I'd tried the service myself and thought it was a great idea--and on at least two occasions it saved me from missing a flight. But I found it frustrating that other benefits, like not having to remove your shoes or laptops, were not forthcoming because the TSA wouldn't approve the necessary machines. They were manufactured and paid for, but they just sat there, unplugged. I'd recently let my card lapse when the fee went up to $199 from the original $128 I had paid; I couldn't justify that expense, and, in general, security lines have eased. (That is not because of the TSA; it's the economy, of course.) Still, during a grace period when I could use my lapsed card, I arrived one morning at the Delta terminal at New York's LaGuardia to see a horrendously long line at the checkpoint. As I sailed past it, I was reminded that the best argument in favor of a program like Clear is not having to worry about the unpredictable nature of security.

The original idea, after all, was backed by Congress right after 9/11.

Here's how it would have worked: You'd submit to an advance background check and then, when TSA determined you weren't likely to be a threat, you could cut the line and avoid some of the irritations of screening, like having to remove your shoes and coat. This would help the TSA, freeing screeners to concentrate on lesser-known travelers. Simply put, the vast majority of fliers are innocent people just trying to get on with their lives; to subject all of them to the same level of security is a huge waste of scarce resources.

I should know: I worked as a screener for two months and the absurdity of the one-size-fits-all approach to screening really got to me. How bad was it? I was ordered to thoroughly search the carry-on of a man whose ID showed he was a top official at the Defense Department; a man I recognized as a former U.S. senator and a military hero to boot was given a 15-minute checkup after the metal detector was set off by his artificial limb. By this twisted logic, everyon--from a government official with security clearance to a first-time traveler--is a potential threat. If that's the case, we've got far bigger problems than any airport security program could address.

Clear, which was founded by Steve Brill of Court TV fame, had its own problems. Airport contracts locked the company into uneconomical levels of staffing, according to one source close to the situation. Airlines didn't like the program because it competed with their own line-cutting privileges for elite fliers. And the TSA just didn't get the concept of more nimble security, a real passenger pre-screening program. Ironically, Congress is now poised to pass a much-improved registered traveler program that would achieve those aims.  

Further reading:
* Several checkpoints that were run by a Clear competitor at airports in Jacksonville, Louisville, and Reno are still accepting Clear cards.
* If you paid to renew your service in the last couple of months, you should dispute the charges with your credit card company. 
* Waiting for the All Clear (CNT/Aug. 2008)
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry


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