As airport security checkpoints get more crowded and lines get longer, travelers are arriving earlier than ever to make that flight on time. Arrive late; miss the flight. Once at the gate, passengers may wait longer than normal as airlines juggle the start of boarding with actual anticipated takeoff time. Keeping passengers in the aircraft or on the ground too long may result in a hefty fine. While the aircraft may be ready and the flight crew willing, passengers may face delays beyond their control caused by budget cutbacks.
Frequently flying out of Orlando International Airport (MCO), I see crowds on most days at just about any time as vacationers come in town to visit Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or any one of a number of central Florida attractions. Frankly, the thought of the process being slowed down by budget cuts is terrifying to those who work out of that airport.
How terrifying? Enough to make frequent fliers re-think their game plans and look for new ways to expedite the boarding process.
Take The Express Lane
I recently re-joined CLEAR, the biometric fast pass through security at MCO. I had been a member in 2005 when the service had over 200,000 members. But shortly after a laptop with the names and detailed information of 33,000 CLEAR customers was reported stolen in 2008, the service shut down. Starting back up in 2010, I had thought about joining again but was a bit apprehensive about the whole program and lines seemed to move along pretty well at MCO anyway.
Then came talk of sequestering, budget cuts and TSA downsizing, which quickly reminded me just how much I hate lines, slow people and inefficiency. Example: On a rolling sidewalk at the Minneapolis/St Paul airport, clearly marked stand to the right, walk to the left, I made a point of educating our children that “there is no ‘mosey’ lane kids.”
Primed to take the bait of a LivingSocial CLEAR trial offer ($18 for three months, spouse included), we stopped by the CLEAR kiosk not long ago to complete registration. I answered a variety of security questions and gave prints of fingers and thumbs, along with a retina scan and a copy of my passport and driver’s license. The process took about five minutes. From what I could see, that was far longer than those observed going through the CLEAR security checkpoint.
Stopping briefly to verify their identity then right on through the normal x-ray scan without any wait has the potential to save passengers time. One TSA officer told me, without hesitation, that amount of time could be “hours if staffing is reduced.”
The main drawback with CLEAR is that it is only offered in a few airports. Besides Orlando International Airport (MCO), CLEAR service is available at Denver International Airport (DEN), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and Westchester NY Airport (HPN).
Will I keep CLEAR after the three-month trial? Hard to say; at an annual rate of $179 per person, frequent fliers working out of a CLEAR-enabled airport will probably have no trouble justifying the price. As reports of actual government cutbacks cause longer lines, even less-than-frequent fliers could suddenly become interested, as I was.
For travelers not based by a CLEAR-enabled airport, there are other options though. To get there, we need to start by thinking outside of the United States.
Global Entry Program
International arrivals can speed up the process of entering the United States by using automated kiosks at most major U.S. airports via the Global Entry Program. I signed up for this one too because I have several international flights coming up in the next few months. The $100 fee is good for five years.
One of several Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Programs, including SENTRI (expedites crossing between the U.S. and Mexico), and NEXUS (expedites processing between the U.S. and Canada), Global Entry requires a fairly detailed online application to begin.
You’ll need your valid passport, driver’s license and a clean criminal record to get conditionally approved. A face-to-face appointment at an airport processing center completes the application.
The TSA Pre✓ program allows some frequent fliers, invited by their participating host airline (Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines or US Airways), along with those enrolled in a Trusted Traveler Program, to speed through the airport screening process for domestic flights.
Odds are that if you qualify for the program through an airline, you already know about it. Those who don’t make it via airline invitation can back up to the Global Entry Program, pay the $100 for five years and enjoy the benefits.
Once enrolled in one of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler Programs, like the Global Entry Program mentioned above, air travelers are automatically qualified to participate in TSA Pre✓ when flying a participating airline at a participating airport.
To make that work, once signed up for a Trusted Traveler Program, travelers provide their Trusted Traveler account number in the “Known Traveler Number” field when booking travel.
That number, along with reservation information goes into TSA’s Secure Flight system and enables access to the TSA Pre✓ line at participating airports by embedding a secret code in boarding passes.
In addition to a faster lane, TSA Pre✓-approved travelers can leave their shoes, light outerwear and belts on and keep their 311 liquids packed away. Laptops and small electronics no longer have to be removed either. The program is no guarantee of expedited processing, as TSA will continue random checks, but it sure can’t hurt.
Orlando International Airport where I am trying the CLEAR membership is one of those airports.
Observing both the CLEAR line and the TSA Pre ✓ line, CLEAR seems to be the winner for speed. We’ll find out as we test both over the next few months.
[Photo Credits- Flickr user alist - tsa.gov - Chris Owen]