Jumping the Line – Using Clear Registered Traveler and Diamond Lane Self-Select

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.

6 comments on “Jumping the Line – Using Clear Registered Traveler and Diamond Lane Self-Select

  1. anonymous tsa mdw employee says:

    I work for tsa midway. I have been assigned to work in the black diamond or expert lane several times since its induction. I’ve noticed the same as you. Most travelers in the expert lane are not quite experts, some have absolutely no clue. I think one of the main problems is because it’s a “self-selecgt” lane. Which means anyone, even a first time flier can deem themselves an expert and go into whichever lane they chose. And we as Tsa have no right to tell them to go into the casual lane. Another reason some people complain is because of the long walk to get to the expert lane. But if you are departing from concourse C the expert lane will put you about 100 feet away from your gate. I hope you have better luck with that in the future.

  2. mark says:

    Anon TSA MDW –

    Thanks for contributing your insight on this. People are self-selecting for what they think will be the shortest line, thus making it the longest. I understand the TSA’s rationale behind self-selection, but perhaps some TSA personnel could help “guide” at least some of the less-experienced travelers into selecting the right lane.

  3. anonymous tsa mdw employee says:

    Believe me when I say we have tried to so-called “guide” them into the correct lane. But like you mentioned they just go where they wish. And believe it or not they don’t always go to the shortest line. I have always said if there is ever a long line at the security checkpoint it is because of those passengers that have “tunnel vision”. Sometimes it feels like we literally have to hold their hand and take them to the metal detector. Then the get upset and defensive when we talk loud telling them which way to go to get to the short lines. But they don’t realize the airport is loud and when your there for 8.5 hours 5 days a week you tend to talk loud naturally. Not speaking about you personally…but some of these people that fly makes you wonder…why is this person roaming the free world by themselves? Some people seem as if they need to be accompanied at all times. But I guess I should be done…I’ve gotten a bit off topic. and lastly I would like to say…we that work for TSA have a heart…we are not the cold, heartless jerks that you think we are. Although I do work with some real assholes…only a couple. But the majority of us do care. People gotta realize its a job. Like I would tell someone who’s bag I am checking. Do I think some of the rules are ridiculous? Of course I do….But do I want to take care of my family? of course.

  4. Seth Fisher says:

    I had the opposite experience at Midway this week. First of all, the TSA employees there were some of the kindest I’ve ever met, and that after plenty of traveling. Second, I noticed that the “black diamond” line was pushed by the ropes to be thinner. It also tails to the right, away from most of the gates, and thus looks more foreboding. In medium traffic, I noticed that people generally went to the line relatively within their travel expertise. I postulate, however, that during times of heavy traffic, travelers will get more anarchic, going for whichever line seems most likely to get them through the fastest. At that point, you might as well be trying to get cattle to read signs and head to the correct pens. This also holds for people more accustomed to the dog-eat-dog rules of crowd traffic. What you need to do is make the expert line more foreboding somehow. Or just make it for single-travelers. Sure, me and my girlfriend might pretend we don’t know each other for the duration of the line, but if we know to do that, we’re the type of people you want in the expert line anyway, right?

  5. Biz Traveler says:

    The self-selection thing simply doesn’t work. In Boston going to the Continental gates, it’s a disaster. Everybody is an self-proclaimed “expert” traveler and that’s the slowest line. I stood in the expert line and watched the old folks and families with strollers cruise right through the casual/family lanes. What’s worse is it seems when they go with this self-select idea, they remove the elite/1st class lines, thus taking a step backward for all of us frequent business travelers. Vegas desperately needs Clear lanes — that airport is always a security line nightmare.

  6. Leah says:

    We just went through security at MCO what a nightmare! We’re elite with Continental and are used to zipping through the elite line within a few minutes. Since there is no elite line we were forced behind a neverending line of strollers and children with Disney gear. Although in the expert travelled line a family was allowed to check in behind us. Then just as our ids were checked a huge crowd from another lane were diverted in front of us. The screener told us to push our way in. 30 minutes later we made it through. The most amazing thing this was at 5:00 a.m!

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