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.

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Posted on January 20, 2009, in Analyst Life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Boy does my experience differ from yours: I log about 150k miles a year, and use the Clear Card wherever I can. Sure, I wish it were in lots more airports, but in the two years I’ve had it, they have doubled the number, so I’m optimistic.

    Once you know where the Clear lanes are – and it’s not like they aren’t well-marked – getting through them is a cinch. I’ve never once seen someone ‘fumble’ their way through it; my experience is that Clear Card holders are in fact frequent travelers who know to get their shoes off, their laptops out, etc, in advance. Given, you have to step onto the ‘machine’ and insert the card first, but its pretty straightforward, takes maybe 20 seconds, and the Clear personnel are exceptionally friendly and helpful.

    Because I travel so much and have little airline loyalty, I am platinum on two airlines, and Gold on four others. I often find myself in the ‘premier’ or 1st class lines (at airports without Clear, or after hours, etc.). Sometimes those lines are about as short as Clear, but given the explosion in premier cards these days, that is the exception. While premier lanes are always shorter than the general lines, they are still typically 5-20 people deep (in LA try 100; and Clear is going to be in LA. Yay!). Clear maybe has one person ahead of me, and only that about half the time.

    I love the card, and am thrilled whenever i hear it is rolling out in more airports. I agree with you on the ID thing, but I suspect over time as airport personnel become more familiar with it, this issue will abate.

  2. The Clear lines are shorter than premium — but the overall time through security, including the out-of-the-way walk if applicable, doesn’t always seem to be less. That’s especially true if I’m in an airport where I’m not sure whether or not there’s Clear, and if so, where it is. The Clear line isn’t always well-marked, and airport personnel frequently don’t know where it is.

    We may differ in the experiences of our home airports, too — flying out of DC means dealing with tourists, which means that the length of time it takes for those folks to go through the screening ritual is sometimes “forever”.

    The big difference in our experiences, though, I think, is that I’m going through a LOT of different airports — more than three dozen in the course of a year. Most of those airports don’t have Clear, and probably won’t get it anytime soon. And even huge airports that I’m through more often, like LAX and Chicago — places where I really would like to bypass long security lines! — don’t have Clear. (And of my three local airports, only two have Clear — BWI still doesn’t.)

    What I really want out of Clear is the line right next to the main security line (ala Atlanta), but with its own security screening (ala Dulles). I’d like it to be as clearly marked as regular security. And of course, I want it to be at all airports.

  3. Great, thanks! ^_^

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