Test driving Clear Security

Well that took for ever. On January 19th of this year, I took the opportunity to sign up for a free trial of Clear Security. Designed to help the frequent traveler pass through airport security checkpoints faster, the system takes several biometric data from the passenger and in exchange returns expedited service through security. They have kiosks at over a dozen of the largest airports in the country (and some venues) marked with a light blue Clear cube.

Whether the service is useful, saves time, is worth the money or is truly secure is a good, relevant question, but for now we’ll focus on the logistics of Clear Security operation.

Signing up for the Clear program is a two step process. Interested travelers must first go to flyclear.com where any number of coupons will earn you discounted or free service for a few months. At the site, you give normal registration data and authorize the collection of “excess data,” which are the biometrics with which you’ll identify yourself in the future. Clear will also ask if they can share your retinal data with NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) for research purposes, but you can decline this.

Once you provide billing information, you’re required to go to the airport for the second half of enrollment. At any kiosk outside of security, you basically explain that you signed up online and need to provide additional info, then an agent will assist you in providing your biometrics. Passing through Chicago on my way to Boston this January, I took this chance. Each of my ten fingers was scanned separately, then I stepped back at the machine and stared at the window while it scanned my irises. After that, I headed my own way with the knowledge that my card would arrive in 2 – 4 weeks.
It took me three attempts and nearly that many months to finally use my Clear security card. Not every airport hosts the system, and my home McNamara terminal at Detroit Metro isn’t one of them, so I had to wait until I passed through one of the cities to try out the service.

The first time was in LaGuardia airport, departing from New York into Detroit on a 6AM flight. Reaching the airport with my Clear security card eagerly in hand, I was disappointed to find out that that the lane wasn’t open. Operating hours vary by airport and in this case, I was too early to indulge. My fault.

Passing through of Boston‘s airport a few weeks back, I missed my second chance. As Northwest Airlines has just switched terminals at Logan, I was unprepared when I arrived at Terminal 1 at 5:30AM and found an outrageously long line at security. Clear’s lane was empty.

The next week I came prepared. It turns out the line wasn’t as long as it was 7 days earlier, but determined to use my status I marched towards the checkpoint wielding my Clear card. With no line in front me, I approached the kiosk and was greeted by a friendly attendant who took my boarding pass and watched me insert my card. In turn, the machine asked me for a random biometric. In this case, it asked for my right thumb, and I willingly obliged. According to the agent I could have chosen another metric, including any of my other fingers or my retinas, but my thumb print would suffice for now.

A fraction of a second later the machine beeped, the attendant checked my boarding pass and I was ushered towards an x-ray line.

It’s important to remind you at this point that Clear does not circumvent your requirement to go through the metal detector, screen your bags or pack 100mL containers. The real time saved is in the avoidance of oft lengthly lines to get your boarding pass screened. In some airports, after screening you merge with the regular line in front of the metal detector. In others, you get access to your own quasi-personal line.

This was the case in Boston, where the absolute nicest Clear agent was scrambling around picking up plastic bins for passengers. While I could have easily leaned over and picked up my own plastic tub, I appreciated the gesture and effort that this poor guy was putting into his job.

At this point, all passengers converged and the benefits of Clear ended. The total time I saved in Boston? This time I probably saved about three minutes. Last week I would have saved about a half hour. And that could make a big difference when you reach the airport at 5:45 for your 6AM flight.

For what it’s worth, now that my three month Clear trial is almost up my account is automatically expiring. This is a nice because I don’t have to worry about remembering to cancel the service to avoid hefty annual fees. That said, if you get the opportunity to try the service out for free, give it a go. It’s worth trying for no obligation, right?