Clear Card and frequent travel
It’s Inauguration Day, but I am on the road, so I am watching TV from my hotel room rather than braving the crowds in DC. Fortunately, my quadrant of the DC area was still relatively tame at 7 am, and I made it to Dulles on time, where I made the mistake of using the premium security line rather than my Clear card, and my lane was essentially unmoving for a time — lots of tourists today. (By the way, kudos to the Washington Post for slimming down their mobile site today, to just a nice set of minimalistic pages focused on the inauguration and visitors to the city.)
Like many analysts, I travel a lot. Moreover, I go to a hodgepodge of destinations, making it difficult to accumulate frequent flyer miles on a single carrier. So I find myself frequently flying airlines that I do not have premier standing on.
My attempted solution to this was to get a Clear Card. My home airports — Dulles, Reagan National, BWI — got Clear early on, so it seemed like a logical choice. Applying was easy — in Dulles, there’s a kiosk for it where they can do the soup-to-nuts application, and one day, while waiting for an international flight (and therefore in possession of my passport), I went ahead and did it. My Clear card arrived promptly in the mail, and I was good to go.
Unfortunately, there are three notable aspects about Clear that severely hamper its usefulness: First, it’s available at very few airports. Second, it’s often not clear whether or not it’s available, and if you’re in an airport where it’s not (and sometimes even if you’re in an airport where it is), if you ask about it, airport personnel, including the TSA personnel, will look at you like you have grown a third head — they’ve never heard of it, and think the fact that you are asking about it (“Excuse me, is there a security line for Clear card holders at this airport?”) is annoying, weird and possibly suspicious. (And good luck getting anyone to take your Clear card as ID, as they’re supposed to do.) Third, the implementation of the Clear line varies, and its usefulness varies accordingly.
At Dulles, for instance, the Clear line is down with the employee security checkpoint, at baggage claim. It’s a separate line which usually has very few people in line, but it’s slow by comparison to the rate at which the premium security line normally moves. Most of the people now using Clear probably don’t use their card often; that’s obvious by the way everyone fumbles with the thing. (I do, too.) Moreover, from watching the way Clear users fumble with their bags, it seems like they don’t fly often. Frequent flyers usually get dealing with security down to an art form. The slowness of the passengers can offset the fact there are very few people in line — premium security at Dulles can actually be faster, especially when you take into account the out-of-the-way walk down to the Clear area and back towards the gates. That makes Clear a pricey investment for those times when I’m flying on an airline where I can’t use the premium line, or when Dulles is exceptionally crowded (or has otherwise not made expert-traveler lanes available).
By contrast, in Atlanta, the Clear line is just a separate entrance into security, just around the corner from the regular entrance. It lets you shortcut what is sometimes a very long general line, or the shorter premium line. But once you’re past the card-check, you’re waiting in the same screening lanes as everyone else.
I don’t regret getting the Clear card, but the cost-to-value ratio is a bit off. It’s $200 to slightly shorten wait times, for fairly frequent flyers who often end up on flights that don’t entitle them to use the premium security line, and who routinely use airports with Clear.
To me, this seems like an opportunity for the airlines to add value: Offer a paid upgrade that gives access to the premium security line and “zone 1″ preferred upgrade, or attach it to full-fare tickets, or otherwise allow people to temporarily buy privileges.