It’s become such a staple of Conventional Wisdom to tell frequent travelers to sign up for TSA PreCheck that even the mainstream media has begun mentioning it in almost every recent news article about the long lines currently appearing at an airport security checkpoint near you. And it’s true that when PreCheck works properly, it’s a terrific way to get through security much faster than normal.
But as we know all too well, when an idea has been around so long that it’s congealed into Conventional Wisdom, that’s often the point when it’s also no longer true. Part of my job as the Devil’s Advocate is to stay ahead of the Conventional Wisdom curve, to be ready to throw away yesterday’s Conventional Wisdom and spot tomorrow’s Conventional Wisdom today.
So with the phrase “the PreCheck line was just as long as the regular one!” becoming a common utterance at airport lounges across the country, is it time to look for another option?
The CLEAR program, long ignored by many travelers in favor of PreCheck, is starting to garner more interest from the traveling public as the TSA situation becomes intolerable. Even Delta made the decision just a few weeks ago to partner with CLEAR to bring free memberships to all their Diamond members and roll out CLEAR to Delta hubs across the country in the next several months.
Which brings us to today’s question: is it time to dump your PreCheck membership and get CLEAR instead?
Perhaps it’s not quite as simple as a “yes” or “no” answer…
What’s wrong with TSA PreCheck?
When PreCheck first appeared on the scene a few years ago, it literally felt like the mother of all VIP passes. Here was a way to not only skip unpacking half your baggage to be put individually through the x-ray machine (and by the way, isn’t the whole point of an x-ray machine that it can see through your suitcase?) but also not have to worry about the unpredictable airport security line that might either leave you missing your flight or spending 3 extra hours in the lounge.
But of course, TSA quickly started mucking up a good thing. First they began randomly selecting people who weren’t actually members of PreCheck to push through expedited security. Needless to say, these people had no idea what was happening and proceeded to clog up the lines by engaging unnecessarily in all the standard time consuming security processes, along with asking endless questions about what they were doing there in the first place and why they were being asked to put their liquids back into their bag when they just spent 10 minutes taking them all out?
After a while TSA stopped that and went back to just allowing actual PreCheck passengers in the PreCheck line. But not enough people have signed up for PreCheck, mostly because the advertising for it consists entirely of a single sign at the end of the security process, whose audience at that moment are incredibly annoyed people rushing for their flight which is leaving in 4½ minutes. Unsurprisingly, this has not been an effective way to get people to sign up for PreCheck.
So now, given the lack of participants, the TSA is moving resources away from PreCheck, resulting in fewer officers assigned to PreCheck and PreCheck lanes opening later and closing earlier at many airports. And all of this comes just as passenger traffic is increasing and TSA budgets are decreasing.
CLEAR lets you actually skip the lines!
While PreCheck is great for getting out of the massive line winding back to the skycaps at curbside, in many cases you still end up in a line. It’s usually a much smaller one, but lately even that’s not always the case. Even when it is, the beauty of PreCheck was that you could count on a short line and plan accordingly, which is no longer always true.
The problem is that at the head of both lines is a TSA agent manually checking your boarding pass against your photo ID to make sure they match, and then manually checking your photo ID against your actual face standing in front of them to make sure they match. This is not a quick process.
But with CLEAR, you skip all that. A kiosk matches your boarding pass to your identity via fingerprint or eye scan, eliminating all human involvement entirely. Once your identity is confirmed, you are escorted directly to the physical screening process, skipping the main security line and even the PreCheck line.
While it’s always possible CLEAR will eventually become so popular that lines begin to form for it as well, right now that isn’t a problem like it can be for PreCheck. And even if it happens one day, the solution for CLEAR would be simple – just add more kiosks. No additional labor would need to be hired or trained to glare at you because you attempted to move two steps forward while the 5th shift change in the last 20 minutes was underway.
CLEAR is not administered by the TSA.
The word “beleaguered” has been used so often in the last few months to describe the TSA that I suspect some people are starting to believe it’s actually part of the agency’s name. In fact, maybe if they just change their name to the BTSA, then reporters will feel dumb using the phrase “…the beleaguered Beleaguered Transportation Security Administration…” in their columns and will come up with a less overused synonym instead.
But CLEAR is a private company not run by the TSA, which means they aren’t subject to the current staffing issues or whims of Congressional budgeting. Plus if you’re ideologically opposed to all governmental programs (like some bloggers we might mention), you won’t have to sacrifice your libertarian ideals to make it through the security checkpoint.
Also, unlike PreCheck, it’s free to add children under 18 years of age to your CLEAR account – they don’t even have to be officially enrolled in the program to use it with you. And finally, CLEAR is not airline-dependent, meaning you can use it on any airline you’re flying wherever CLEAR is available.
OK, so… what’s the catch?
The good news is there isn’t a catch. The bad news is that’s because there are actually three catches.
First and most importantly, while CLEAR will get you past the TSA identity check line, it doesn’t change the security process beyond that. So if you don’t also have PreCheck, you’ll be subject to the normal physical screening procedures such as removing your laptop, liquids, shoes, cavity fillings, and so on.
Second, and almost as importantly, right now CLEAR is in way too few airports. Only 13 U.S. airports feature CLEAR security kiosks, and that list is missing some pretty major hubs such as any of the 3 New York airports, both Chicago airports, and LAX. In other words, CLEAR isn’t available in any of the three biggest cities in the country. The new partnership with Delta means CLEAR should be coming to more airports by the end of the year, but in the meantime, yes, that’s a pretty huge catch.
And third, CLEAR definitely isn’t cheap. While PreCheck is only $85 for 5 full years when purchased separately (and included for free in the $100 Global Entry program), a CLEAR membership runs $179 per year for the first person (additional family members are $50). That’s a lot of money and very likely not worth it if you don’t fly on a regular basis.
For a while there was a free six-month trial and $60 annual discount for having a Visa Signature card, but that benefit appears to have been discontinued as the old link now reroutes to the standard CLEAR enrollment process with no mention of any discount.
The Devil’s Advocate isn’t giving up PreCheck, but might consider CLEAR.
Quite frankly, if I lived in a CLEAR city, I’d get a membership without question. As someone who tends to run… how shall we say… on the late side, I highly value the ability to know exactly how long it will take to get from the parking lot to the gate. Because in my case, minutes often matter.
But even if I got CLEAR, I definitely wouldn’t give up PreCheck. Even if I didn’t have my PreCheck membership through Global Entry (which is a completely different program from either CLEAR or PreCheck and absolutely worthwhile for those traveling abroad), I’d still want the convenience of expedited physical screenings along with the ability to skip the identity check lines.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in a city with CLEAR lanes, so the value proposition is a lot more questionable. I do travel to Dallas on a regular basis, which is a CLEAR city, but I’m not sure I want to pay $179 a year for the half-dozen times I make that trip. And since we’re talking about security, there’s no benefit to having either CLEAR or PreCheck when you’re just connecting through an airport.
Still, with even the TSA admitting lines will get worse before they get better, if you happen to live in a city with CLEAR lanes and know you’ll be able to use the service on a regular basis, CLEAR might very well save you a major chunk of time. Just don’t forget to renew your TSA PreCheck as well. You can ask one of those friendly TSA agents about renewals the next time they’re scribbling on your boarding pass.Devil’s Advocate is a bi-weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by following him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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