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Two decades ago, going through airport security was a simple process. You simply got into THE line, put your stuff through the x-ray machine, and walked through the metal detector. Today, the situation is much more complex, with as many as four different security lines at some airports, various levels of identity verification and screening offered, and a shifting array of rules and guidelines for each.
An expedited security program called CLEAR has made its way to more than 24 different airports in the United States, and it works a little differently than you might expect. Today, I’ll explain what CLEAR is and discuss its benefits and potential drawbacks.
How CLEAR Works
As CLEAR’s representative explained to me, today’s airport security consists of passing through two steps: identity verification and security screening. Travelers who have enrolled in CLEAR have their own separate lane for the first step, where you can utilize biometric authentication (fingerprint or eye scan) at a kiosk rather than wait for a TSA agent to inspect your ID and scribble something on your boarding pass. And with CLEAR, no one will bark at you for “approaching the podium” before they’re ready for you.
After your identity has been verified, a CLEAR representative will escort you to the actual security screening, bypassing everyone waiting in the first line. If you’re also enrolled in TSA PreCheck, then you’ll be taken directly to the Pre-Check line. Finally, children under 18 may use the CLEAR line for free when traveling with a paid member.
To use CLEAR you must first enroll online, and then visit an airport location where your identity is verified and your biometrics are recorded. Thankfully, you can do this quickly at any CLEAR location with no appointment necessary.
The CLEAR program that operates today is actually its second iteration. CLEAR first began in 2004, long before TSA Pre-Check was available. That company went bankrupt in 2010, and its assets were purchased by the current founders. The present CLEAR is an entirely separate organization, with no remaining staff from the old company. According to the representative I spoke to, the old CLEAR expanded too aggressively and was spread too thin, while the new CLEAR is taking a more conservative approach.
Where CLEAR Works
At this time, CLEAR is available at the following airports:
- Atlanta (ATL)
- Austin (AUS)
- Baltimore (BWI)
- Dallas Love Field (DAL)
- Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
- Denver (DEN)
- Detroit (DTW)
- Houston Hobby (HOU)
- Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH)
- Las Vegas (LAS)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Miami (MIA)
- Minneapolis (MSP)
- New York-JFK
- New York-LaGuardia (LGA)
- Orlando (MCO)
- Salt Lake City (SLC)
- San Antonio (SAT)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- San Jose (SJC)
- Seattle (SEA)
- Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C. (DCA)
- Washington Dulles (IAD)
- Westchester, New York (HPN)
CLEAR Versus TSA PreCheck
I’ve noticed the CLEAR lane at my home airport in Denver, and hadn’t given it much thought, since my entire family is enrolled in Global Entry, which offers access to TSA PreCheck. However (as it was explained to me), one is not a substitute for the other, and CLEAR offers some distinct, and complementary advantages.
First, TSA PreCheck members are not guaranteed access every day, as they can be randomly excluded and sent to the standard line, but CLEAR has no randomized exclusion of passengers. In addition, everyone who enters the CLEAR line is a member of CLEAR and knows how to operate the system. On the other hand, TSA has been adding more and more non-member travelers into the PreCheck line who have no idea how it works and hold things up. Also, PreCheck only works when traveling with a participating airline. In contrast, CLEAR works when traveling with any carrier.
Other distinctions between CLEAR and PreCheck include the ability to reach screening more quickly by speeding up the verification process, and the fact that not everyone will be able to qualify for PreCheck. Also, keep in mind that having CLEAR doesn’t preclude you from using the streamlined PreCheck security screening process; it’s just designed to help you reach it faster than you would have otherwise. It’s not like skipping security altogether, but I can think of a whole lot of people at Chicago Midway on Thanksgiving weekend who would have been happy to bypass the first step in the security line.
CLEAR Versus the Line for Elite and Premium Passengers
The four security lines I mentioned above include the standard line, the PreCheck line, the CLEAR line and finally one for passengers traveling in first (or business) class and those with elite status. While this first-class/elite line is usually much shorter than the standard line, you may still find yourself waiting for the TSA agent to inspect your ID and boarding pass, while CLEAR automates this process and escorts passengers directly to either the standard or PreCheck screening. CLEAR is blind to status, so there’s no need to worry about being bypassed if you’re traveling in economy or lack elite status with any airline.
What CLEAR Costs
The normal rate for CLEAR membership is $179 per year, with an additional $50 per family member (remember, children under 18 receive free access with members). TPG readers can use the promo code TPG149 to get a discounted membership of $149 for the first year. You can either enter the code manually or use this link. In addition, the Visa Signature program offers six months of free CLEAR membership and $60 off the $179 annual rate when you renew your membership automatically.
If CLEAR is available at your home airport or one you visit frequently, then it could be a big time saver regardless of whether you have TSA PreCheck. Even if you have PreCheck, the reality is that there’s often just a single TSA staffer checking IDs and boarding passes for the PreCheck line, alternating with other non PreCheck passengers and holding things up significantly. The idea is that CLEAR members enjoy more predictable access to security, which means those who check in online and don’t check bags can schedule airport arrivals even closer to departure than they would normally. Otherwise, you can still spend more time in your favorite lounge or restaurant, and less time waiting in line for the TSA.
On the downside, CLEAR is much more expensive than PreCheck, especially since you can get a statement credit for Global Entry membership with The Platinum Card from American Express, the Citi Prestige Card and others. Plus, CLEAR is only available in a limited number of cities. But if the footprint roughly matches your typical travel patterns, and you highly value a predictable travel experience, than CLEAR is worth considering.
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