I travel a lot. I always have. The ease of air travel runs in cycles – we seem to be at another low point where lines are long, planes are full, flights are late / delayed / canceled, and almost all travel personnel (except apparently those on Southwest) are somewhere on the spectrum between grumpy and rude.
But that’s just travel. You’ve got to get past the crazy TSA people before you can actually embark on your trip. The experience of standing in a long line, having to take your id out of your wallet so they can inspect it carefully, unpacking all your liquids and gels, listening to the same inane announcements over and over again, and having a completely random "inspect board pass as you go through the metal detector" algorithm gets old. Really old. Oh – and don’t forget to take your shoes and belt off. All in the quest to fly safer.
When Clear came out with their Registered Traveler program, I was immediately sold on it. For a mere $100 / year plus a one time $28 TSA vetting charge, they promised me that I could fly through security "faster, with more predictability and less hassle." Their PR machine has done a nice job of promoting their fast lane. I paid my money, got my retina scan, and now have my Clear card (actually – my second one – the first one was apparently lost in the mail – ah the secure irony.)
I’ve been using my Clear card regularly in the supported airports that I fly through (so far only DIA and SFO – but they promise many more soon.) And I can affirm Clear’s marketing pitch – I am flying through security much faster. But not because of a separate line or a reduction in "are you safe to get past the TSA people" algorithm based on my key biometric data matching up.
Nope – Clear has a simpler approach. They help me cut in line. I go to my special Clear line (there’s only one at DIA – you’ve got to find and it remember to go to "the other left" when you enter on the west side of the airport.) I show the Clear person my boarding pass and id (just like the TSA person, but this person says hi and smiles at me.) I go to the biometric machine and get asked for the Nth time if I’ve used this before (I say yes.) I put my card in the machine and do a retina scan (most of the time it works – sometimes it takes a few tries.) Once I pass, a nice person grabs my bags, helps me undress myself and my laptop into two TSA buckets, and leads me, shoeless – but with the two TSA buckets – to the very front of the TSA check line. The 126 people behind me in line sneer at me. The TSA person gives me a really dirty look and then proceeds to double check my boarding pass and ID. Once I’m cleared, the nice Clear person once again takes me to the very front of the line – this time the front of the metal detector / x-ray machine / whatever it’s called line.
Pause. The reactions here have generally been priceless. Last week the the woman that I cut in front of said "why are you cutting in line?" I explained that I had paid $128 to Clear (including pointing at the Clear line machine) to "get through security faster." She smiled a very cynical smile and said "ok – I was just checking to make sure you weren’t an asshole." And that was one of the nice ones.
Overall, I’m saving a ton of time getting through security with Clear. It’s easily worth the $100 to me since I get hit with a $40 change fee by United on a regular basis when I miss a flight (even though I’m a treasured 1k / Million Mile flyer with one of those fancy dark brown get out of jail free treat me nicely cards.) But it’s not because of any fundamental innovation or extra magic biometric security. It’s because I just paid $128 to cut to the front of the line.