Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Box seats at the security theatre

Many (most?) people haven't even heard of a program that started in Orlando's airport two years ago and that has spread only slowly since. It's called “Clear” by its company, “Registered Traveler” by the Transportation Security Administration, and its aim is to give paying customers a fast path through airport security. In return, members are checked out in advance and carry biometric IDs.

The program is stuck because the TSA isn't convinced that some of the scanning equipment — such as the machine that scans your shoes without your having to remove them — is up to the task. There were some congressional hearings recently, to work on getting it un-stuck. Meanwhile, initial concerns, a couple of years ago, that the program would just delay everyone else more have proved to be unfounded, though that might simply be because there are so few members.

What's interesting to me is the complaint about where things are now:

[...] Clear so far was only able to offer a special access lane for members (there are about 55,000, paying $99.95 a year and carrying biometrically encoded identification cards). Though they get front-of-the-line access, those members still have to proceed through the regular security checkpoint.

According to Mr. Brill’s business plan, those members should already have had the benefit of passing through kiosks, produced by General Electric in a partnership with Verified Identity, that use technology for detecting explosives and metals to scan shoes without their being removed. Mr. Brill said T.S.A. had stalled on approving it.

“All” they get is a separate lane that basically puts them at the front of the security checkpoint line.

As someone who flies eight or ten times a year, I can tell you that that would be enough. Once I'm at the front of the line, it takes all of a minute or two to get through. I take my laptop and my little zippered plastic bag out and put them in a bin along with my wallet and BlackBerry. I take off my shoes. I walk through the metal detector. I say “Hi, and have a nice day,” to the TSO who ensures that, once again, I failed to set off any alarms. Having put my shoes on the belt first, I retrieve them first and don them. I put the wallet back in my pocket, the BlackBerry back on my belt, and the laptop and plastic bag back in their places. And I'm on my way to the gate. Yes, maybe two minutes, tops.

That's just not a big deal.

Taking my shoes off may be stupidly unnecessary, and it may make me laugh inside every time I do it, but it just is not a big deal. It might save me ten seconds or so if I didn't have to do it.[1] Twenty seconds if I wear lace-up shoes, which I generally avoid when I'm flying. Even someone who flies twice a month and wears shoes with laces spends less than ten minutes a year doing the shoe dance. Who cares?

Waiting in the queue, on the other hand, can take a significant amount of time. Sometimes there's nothing at all, and I go right up to the checkpoint. Sometimes there's a minimal wait of a couple of minutes. Actually, those two happen more often than you might expect, more often than I would expect, especially considering that my home airports are JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. But yes, sometimes there can be a 15 minute wait, or 30 minutes or longer, and a “Right this way, sir, come to the front of the line,” pass would be a nice thing.

More than that, though, is completely unnecessary. And even that isn't worth $100/year to me, though I guess it might be if I flew 25 times or more a year, instead of ten.

[1] Actually, not even that: because the shoes come out first, I often have them on before I have access to the rest of my gear anyway. The overlap means it takes even less time than it might.

Update, 11:00: NPR is doing a series about air travel this week on Morning Edition. Today's installment is about security.

And today's New York Times reports that a man was able to get a monkey through airport security and on board a plane.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm sure the security people didn't blink. I've never had one ask for proof that I bought room on the plane for my cat. Granted, she travels in a carrier, but she goes through security in my arms, not on the belt through the machine.

Jim Fenton said...

Yes, it may be worth $100/year to get saved ~15 min each on a number of trips, but I have a problem with paying for this sort of expedited service. Who gets the money, anyway, and what is it paying for? Would they be able to get $200 if the delays were even worse? Initially, we heard that they were going to do background checks, and participants would receive less screening, but that seems not to be the case.

I'm always amused when hearing about the "biometric identification cards" as though the use of biometrics makes it all work well. Identifying the subject has never been the subject; they could do as well by issuing just a photo ID but the use of biometrics helps sell the program, and that's the real point.