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The Company That Wants to Help You Cut in the TSA Line

I never feel more smug than when I breeze past the plebeians at the airport and join my fellow elitists in the TSA PreCheck line — a security line for those of us who submit to a government background check in exchange for not having to take our shoes off at security.

But lately, I’ve noticed a troubling development in the world of expedited airport security clearance: There are more and more people joining the PreCheck, and many of them have no idea what the fuck they’re doing — thus slowing down the process and defeating the entire purpose of the PreCheck program in the first place. This is when my smugness turns into righteous indignation, and I start yelling at people to put their shoes back on because that’s not how shit works around here.

There is, however, a new service, CLEAR, that promises to remedy my frustrations, by allowing me to cut to the front of the PreCheck line (a pre-PreCheck, if you will). Essentially, for $179 a year, CLEAR will help you avoid any and all long lines at the airport. You simply confirm your identity at a CLEAR kiosk, and a CLEAR employee escorts you past the first TSA agent (and all the people waiting to show them their passport or photo ID), and straight to the line for the metal detector, body scanner and bag X-ray.

But is it a good deal?

I sure as hell think so. But more on that later. First…

…a Little Background on the Company

Even though its profile is relatively small, CLEAR isn’t exactly a fresh new startup. The current iteration of CLEAR dates back to 2009, when former hedge-fund managers Caryn Seidman-Becker and Ken Cornick bought a fledgling security startup on the verge of bankruptcy. They relaunched the venture the following year as CLEAR, and the service now has more than 1 million members and is available in 33 airports across the country. (CLEAR also has taken on a sizable $35 million in VC, according to TechCrunch’s CrunchBase.)

CLEAR isn’t a government entity, though. Nor is it subcontracted by the TSA. It is, however, certified by the Department of Homeland Security as an official anti-terrorism technology provider.

How It Works

CLEAR pays to have its kiosks stationed at various airports. Those who want to use the service simply approach a CLEAR machine, enter their personal and flight information and submit to an iris or fingerprint scan. Users then have to answer a series of personal questions confirming their identity, such as “What kind of vehicle did you make a car loan payment on in 2012?” or “Which of these five addresses did you live in the past five years?” (This information is culled from third-party data providers, but CLEAR says it doesn’t share any of its own user data with third parties.)

Users can register online, before they get to the airport or do the entire process at the kiosk. CLEAR says doing the latter takes only a few minutes.

As for how it jives with PreCheck, you don’t have to have PreCheck to use Clear. Fliers without PreCheck will simply move to the front of the regular security line. That said, the service obviously works better if you do have PreCheck. CLEAR users who have PreCheck generally get through security in about five minutes, the company says.

It Is a Good Value?

For anyone who flies regularly, I’d say emphatically, yes — CLEAR is a pretty good deal, especially as it begins to add more locations (like my homebase L.A., and my former homebase of NYC). The appeal is obvious for “George Clooney in Up In The Air” businesspeople types who are constantly traveling, and for whom 30 minutes waiting in the security line is 30 valuable minutes they could have spent clacking away on their laptops and billing their clients. (The main drawback is that CLEAR isn’t yet available in several large airports — primarily those in Chicago, Phoenix and Portland.)

Still, CLEAR can make sense for people who don’t travel much for work, too. I had 10 (yes, 10), bachelor parties and weddings last year alone, and all of them required taking a flight. As much as I travel, I’d gladly pay a little less than $200 for the luxury of never again having to interact with other members of the flying public. Airports have a way of bringing out the absolute worst in people, and I’d much rather avoid my fellow man than try to, like, make a new friend (or something).

Even if you just travel five times per year, though, CLEAR can be a good deal. More specifically, a yearly CLEAR membership roughly equates to less than $20 per flight. And how many times have you looked at a horrendous airport security line and thought to yourself, I’d gladly pay $20 to cut to the front and be delivered from this purgatory?

Also, it’s helpful for traveling with kids. Any parent who uses CLEAR is able to bring their children with them to the front of the security line. And while I don’t have children of my own, I’ve seen enough stressed-out parents at the airport to understand why this service would appeal to them.

Why Doesn’t the TSA Just Do This Themselves?

Good question, and that’s a distinct possibility. CLEAR’s fingerprint- and iris scan-based identification technology is a good way to automate and streamline the airport security process, so don’t be surprised if the government starts licensing CLEAR’s kiosks in the near future. So instead of berating a TSA agent, you’ll get to punch an inert machine.

Much more satisfying.