Secrets of the "Clear" airport security line

Yesterday it was announced that “Clear” (Verified ID Pass) the special “bypass the line at security” card company, has shut its doors and its lines. They ran out of money and could not pay their debts. No surprise there, they were paying $300K/year rent for their space at SJC and only 11,000 members used that line.

As I explained earlier, something was fishy about the program. It required a detailed background check, with fingerprint and iris scan, but all it did was jump you to the front of the line — which you get for flying in first class at many airports without any background check. Their plan, as I outline below, was to also let you use a fancy shoe and coat scanning machine from GE, so you would not have to take them off. However, the TSA was only going to allow those machines once it was verified they were just as secure as existing methods — so again no need for the background check.

To learn more about the company, I attended a briefing they held a year ago for a contest they were holding: $500,000 to anybody who could come up with a system that sped up their lines at a low enough cost. I did have a system, but also wanted to learn more about how it all worked. I feel sorry for those who worked hard on the contest who presumably will not be paid.

The background check

As far as Clear knew, there was no reason for the background check, though I think it did perversely serve a marketing function. The background check made you feel a bit “elite” and deserving of the status. It’s a common misconception that pre-approving people with checks and doing less security on them would be a good idea at airport lines. It actually has been shown to aid the bad guys. (They just have to find one member of their band who passes the check, and now that person has a free pass to do evil.) However, the Clear card did not let you bypass any security, just the line.

It took some prodding, but Clear staff admitted the background check was not their plan, but a requirement the TSA put on participation in the “premium line company” program. This suggests the TSA, which continues to be interested in screening passengers based on background, wanted to get a foot in the door for full background checks.

Update: Apparently late last year, the TSA stopped doing the background checks.

The shoe scanners

The whole reason for Clear was a new scanner for shoes and coats that GE had made. The scanners were expensive, so GE was having a hard time trying to sell airports on buying the scanners for every security line. So it provided the seed funding for Clear, which could buy the machines for one line. The scanners could not be used, however, unless they were judged as secure or more secure than the existing X-ray method. I am not sure of the reasons, but the scanners had not yet been approved, so they were just sitting there doing the Iris checks and not the shoe check.

(You stood in the machine and while you held your eye to the scanner, it was in theory going to sniff your shoes and coat.)

The elitism

One thing that surprised me was the TSA had an interesting rule for companies (including airlines) wanting to do premium lines. The requirement was that doing so not impinge on the waiting time of ordinary, non-premium passengers. At first glance, you might think that impossible — how can somebody arrive after me, and skip to the front of the line and not have it slow me down?

One obvious answer is if the company paid for a whole new line. This clearly doesn’t slow you down at all, and in fact it speeds you up a bit because the premium people are now not in your lines. However, paying for a whole extra line is tremendously expensive, so in most cases the approach needed to use existing lines and still speed up the unwashed masses.

If the premium passengers go through at greater than average speed, they can still help you. Say that an ordinary trip is 60 seconds and they can make it take 30 seconds. Before, if the 10 premium passengers were in line with you, 5 in front of you and 5 behind, they would have added 5 minutes to your wait. If all 10 go in front of you but take 30 seconds each, they still only add 5 minutes to your wait. But in fact while it seems that they are butting in front of you, the reality is that some are doing that, and some cleared through before you even got there, and so the total throughput is still better.

How did Clear speed up their passengers? Well, of course they planned on the fancy machine, since not doing shoes and coats would indeed save time in the security line. Other than that their big tricks were buying extra table space to reduce the bottleneck that comes in taking apart all your stuff, and having staff on hand to help you unpack, to take your coat, etc. You were paying for those, and they reduced your time through, and improved the overall throughput of the system for everybody.

Table space

It should be noted that it is well known that the bottleneck of the system is the X-ray machine and the preparation tables for it. The magnetic scanner is underused (that’s why there is one walk-through scanner for 2 X-ray machines.) One of the simplest improvements is to have lots of table space so people can put their things in trays in parallel. However, in many airports, space is at a super premium in security. In older airports, the security space just wasn’t designed for the much slower and bigger security system in use today. Newer airports are designing large security areas. But rent in these areas is high. I asked about doing security elsewhere and then escorting cleared passengers in groups, but this was also too expensive.

The contest and my bag

The invention I mocked up was very simple. I took a laptop bag (which folds in the typical U shape) and added a vinyl pouch in the middle, giving it an “m” shape. A quick flip of the two outer sections revealed the vinyl pouch with laptop while the other stuff was kept away from it. The idea was to make it easy to see what was going on as it went into the X-ray and not to have to take the computer out.

Other people were thinking the same way, as 2 months later, the TSA announced it would start approving special laptop bags that could isolate the laptop in a similar manner. They did not even require the vinyl — anything transparent to X-rays was fine.

I was going to tell them to call it the “Clear” bag, fitting well with their name. However, their contest rules required it all happen for less than 25 cents per transit, and a laptop bag could not readily be costed on a per transit basis. So I never entered it.

The bag, and all my other ideas, of course, were not privacy invasive and did not make use of any background checks. Perhaps that made them of less interest to a company called “Verified ID Pass Inc.” Most of the other contestants at the briefing seemed to be people trying to design faster or better X-ray and sniffing machines.

Other ideas I have written about here — appointments at security, for example — don’t fit the rules. They make things predictable for you but can slow down other passengers.

Other ideas

The other innovation that came out during this period, in this case from the TSA and not Clear, was the general introduction of “expert” and “novice” lines at the TSA. Frequent flyers would use the expert lines, which flow more quickly. This optimized the use of X-ray machines, and apparently had some success.

While I am interested in solving the problem of airport security and how slow it is, Clear, with its background checks, was really an end-run around privacy, so I don’t mourn it at all. Of course, other participants in the program, like FLO, are still around. Though whether they can make money is another question. Many people loved the card. I think its main value was not so much the saved time as the predictability of the trip through security. I don’t think we would mind a 5 minute trip through security if it was always 5 minutes. What we can’t tolerate is that sometimes it’s 30 minutes, so you always have to allocate an extra 30 minutes to your trip through the airport at any time where it might be busy. Most of the time the security line is not too long and the Clear card was not worth it just for those few times when it is. But the predictability was worth something. But not $179/year to enough people, it seemed. Appointments, which would be much cheaper, would do the same thing.

In addition, many wonder what will happen to that database of private information and biometrics that Clear gathered. Will it become an asset in the bankruptcy sale? It’s amazing how a company’s principles will change in such situations.

"and they reduced your time

"and they reduced your time through, and the overall throughput of the system"

You probably meant to say "and improve the overall throughput." The existing wording made me think you were saying the throughput is also reduced.

A brief correction

Clear stopped running background checks in July 2008. I didn't know that when I wrote about the company on CNET in September last year, but Ellen Howe of the TSA's public-affairs office noticed the post and let me know, which I appreciated.

http://news.cnet.com/speedsandfeeds/?keyword=Clear

I didn't like the idea of offering two different kinds of security screening regardless of what kind of pre-screening is performed, and I really didn't like Clear's attempt to extend its business to football stadiums and other places. Both scheme would let terrorists choose the entry path least likely to detect their chosen weapons.

There's more analysis in those posts, and it's all still relevant to any other private companies still pursuing similar strategies.

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Thanks for the update

My main objection to Clear was the pointless background check, which seemed like an end-run around getting people to expect or want a world of background checks being necessary to get good treatment.

I don’t think the other objection is valid. The rule was that the shoe scanner was only to be allowed at the Clear lane if it was judged to be as good as, or better than the existing X-ray method. Now they could make a mistake in determining that, perhaps there might be a flaw in the shoe scanner which bad guys could exploit. But that’s true of any method they might approve, and any effort to improve the quality of the process.

However, the basic philosophy Clear was selling was, if there is a technology that is just as good, but faster, and it’s more expensive, and it’s so much more expensive that only a fraction of people can use it, then it makes sense to use money as a way to decide who gets it. My objection to Clear was the idea that background checks should be used in deciding who gets it. This is particularly true given the TSA’s rule that the whole process be sped up. The rich people, wanting to go through really fast, enable it so the hoi polloi still go through a little bit faster in their wake. Everybody wins, but some people don’t win as much.

As noted, if a new tech is cheap enough it should be deployed for everybody, but clearly one can imagine technologies that are so expensive that they can’t go in every line. The most obvious is the “technology” of extra scanners and staff for a whole new line.

Predictability

I think that for most travelers, this is the big issue for the security line. Not the existence of the line, or even (to some extent) its size; it's that you never know whether *this* will be the instant that some lady freaks about displaying the contents of her purse and the whole works comes to a grinding halt. Or whether *you* will have the Slightly Suspicious Lump in your carry-on bag that gets you sent up to Room 34 for an hour.

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