I’ve had first hand experience with a couple of the TSA’s recent attempts to provide an “overall increase in throughput” — the Registered Traveler program and the Diamond Lane Self-Select program. To save you the suspense, neither is going to create a sudden outpouring of love for the TSA.
As I mentioned in episode #64, Clear, one of the registered traveler programs, is offering a free first-year membership to top-tier status members of Hyatt’s and Marriott’s frequent sleeper programs. I applied on-line in April and then stopped by the “Clear Enrollment Station” in San Francisco airport to have images of my passport, driver’s license, irises and fingerprints captured. Flying through San Francisco (SFO) last Friday was my first chance to try out the program.
The Clear line was easy to find — there was a nice bright blue-and-white Clear sign on top of a pole. I walked past the nearly empty 1st-class/premium status security line, past the mostly full regular security line, to the completely empty Clear line. I presented my driver’s license and my Clear card to the TSA screener who then handed them to the Clear employee right next to him who then handed them back to the screener. I followed the screener to the Clear machine three steps away, inserted my Clear card, and was directed by the machine to put my right index finger on the small reader pad.
My first two attempts with the fingerprint reader failed. The TSA screener just shrugged and pressed the “Try Again” icon on the touch screen. It seemed a common occurrence. On my second try, I noticed a small window on the machine’s screen that displayed my fingerprint. I could see that, because of the angle of the reader pad, it was only picking up half of my fingerprint. On my third attempt, I watched the little window, adjusting my finger until it picked up a full fingerprint. Bingo! It immediately approved me. The screener then escorted me to a regular screening station, holding off a couple of other travelers so that I could go directly to the metal table and start putting my things into the grey bins.
On that Friday morning in SFO, the $100/year Clear line saved me nothing over the free premium line. Indeed, with the card shuffle between the Clear employee and the TSA screener, and the three tries at the fingerprint reader, the Clear line probably took me four times longer than having someone glance at my driver’s license in the premium line. The real value for programs like Clear are at those airports without 1st-class/premium status security lines — Oakland (OAK), Reno-Tahoe (RNO), San Jose (SJC), and Orlando (MCO). Now, if Clear could sign up Las Vegas McCarran Airport (LAS) — brutally long lines and no premium lanes — then they’d have a real value proposition.
Today was my second experience with the ski resort-inspired Diamond Lane Self-Select program at Chicago Midway (MDW) airport. The right-most security lane has a black diamond sign, designating it for “Expert” fliers — defined by the TSA as “the business traveler who flies several times a month”. The next two lines have a blue square sign and are for “Casual” fliers, those who “who travel less frequently, but are familiar with the security process”. The remaining three lines have a green circle and are for families and special assistance passengers. The program was initially piloted in Salt Lake City and Denver. The TSA claims that the “pilots have resulted in an overall increase in throughput and greatly increased customer satisfaction” and that both airports have “experienced a reduction in wait times for expert travelers in the black diamond lanes”.
My experience was a bit different. The program started at MDW on Thursday, May 8. My first experience was the following Monday, May 12. Catching the first Southwest flight to Cleveland, I headed straight to the Expert line. So did a lot of other people, not all of which looked like business travelers who fly several times a month. It quickly became clear that the folks in front of me weren’t expert fliers. They didn’t have their IDs out and ready; they didn’t know to take their shoes off; they tried to take a bottle of water through, and they had to make multiple passes through the metal detector because of jewelry and spare change.
Two weeks later, I’m back at MDW catching the same flight to Cleveland. This time, though, I drop into one of the Casual lines. The Expert line is longer and, once again, about 50% of its inhabitants don’t look like frequent business fliers — the flip-flops are dead giveaways. I match my progress against an easy-to-spot marker in the Expert line — a tall guy wearing a suit. The Casual line moves twice as fast as the Expert line — even with our share of flip-flop wearers. I don’t know what the TSA did differently in their Salt Lake City or Denver pilots, but I haven’t seen any lower wait times for expert travelers and, at least this morning, the guys in the Expert line certainly didn’t look like their satisfaction was greatly increased.