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The Secret to Airport Security Lines

Spare yourself painful delays at the terminal with these new programs and procedures.
Freelance Writer, Self-employed
July 18, 2012

Although necessary, the 2,300 U.S. airport security lines that check approximately about 600 million passengers a year are something all of us would like to minimize.

One major cause of security delays is the high volume of passengers that overwhelms checkpoints at certain hours. “There’s never an optimum time,” says Luis Casanova, a spokesperson with the Transportation Security Administration. “But it seems like, especially because of business travelers, early mornings are the most congested at most airports, especially large and regional airports.”

Another slowdown is the infrequent traveler, unfamiliar with security procedures, who arrives wearing knee-high, lace-up boots, and carrying all manner of liquids, sharp objects and other contraband that trigger pat-downs at the checkpoint. Families on vacation are another drag on the process. “If it’s the holidays, and families are traveling with little kids, obviously they need more time and are carrying more things,” Casanova says.

Finally there are random screenings, in which selected passengers are pulled from the line and subjected to additional search.

TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are a number of ways savvy travelers can limit time spent in security. Probably the most important is the new TSA PreCheck program. This allows pre-screened travelers to avoid removing shoes, belts and outerwear and leave laptops in bags while proceeding through metal detectors.

TSA PreCheck is available to U.S. citizens who are invited by their frequent flyer programs or who sign up for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program. To sign up for Global Entry you have to be a U.S. or naturalized citizen, fill out an application online, pay a $100 fee, then come in for a personal interview by a federal officer. American Express Platinum cardholders can get their $100 reimbursed when they join the program.

Airlines participating in TSA PreCheck include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways. According to Casanova, TSA PreCheck should be available in 35 airports by the end of 2012. It’s currently in 16.

Note that TSA PreCheck members are still subject to patdowns and random screenings. And they may still get stuck behind slower travelers. But they do have less personal hassle.

Black Diamond Lines

Fifty-one U.S. airports now have black diamond lines. These are traveler-selected lines intended to sort passengers by their degree of experience in going through security. Black Diamond lines are for frequent travelers, Family Lines for families with young or old members, and Green Lines for inexperienced travelers.

You don’t have to do anything to quality for one of these lines except know of their existence. Airlines often direct their frequent flyers members to the lines, which may be out of obvious view to the rest the traveling public. So ask when you arrive at an airport if they have these lines and choose the right one for you.

CLEAR Kiosks

CLEAR is a new non-governmental system for pre-clearing travelers and allowing them to move to the front of security lines. For $179 a year, travelers with U.S. passports can register online and then show up for sessions in which their retinas and fingerprints are recorded. Upon arrival at an airport, they go to a CLEAR kiosk, get biometrically identified, and go the front of the line.

CLEAR lacks some advantages of TSA PreCheck, such as not having to remove shoes. But CLEAR members can add a spouse or partner for $50, and children under 18 can use the CLEAR lane without enrollment if accompanied by an adult member. There are also corporate and group discounts for five members and up.

The main limitation of CLEAR is that the service is available in only four airports: Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Orlando and San Francisco. CLEAR also has to overcome a bad taste left in the mouths of 200,000 customers of a predecessor company that suddenly ceased operations and left them high and dry in 2009. The new owners, headed by CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker, say they have plenty of capital after re-launching last year, and are completing former members’ terms of service without charge.

CLEAR members also can’t avoid pat-downs and random screenings, but Seidman-Becker says belonging to CLEAR means you only need to arrive at the airport a half-hour before your flight, instead of the customary hour. “We’ve had over 650,000 travelers come through the lane since we kicked off,” she says. “One person missed their flight because things didn’t go perfectly.” A typical CLEAR member gets through security in five minutes or less, she says.

Looking Ahead

Clearly, a lot is happening when it comes to helping people through security. American Express Canada recently started a program to allow Platinum Card members to go through a special lane at the Toronto airport, and similar programs may be rolled out elsewhere.

The International Air Transport Association envisions a future where metal detectors are replaced with cameras that capture passengers’ images and employ software to analyze mannerisms to identify threats. With biometric scans replacing passports and driver’s licenses, and machines that can scan for weapons without routing passengers through metal detectors, the checkpoint of the future may someday make airport security delays a quaint feature of the early 21st century.

What's your best tip for speeding through security?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Freelance Writer, Self-employed