The overall hassle of air travel hasn't changed in the last decade, but the specifics surrounding this peculiar first-world problem have subtly and slowly shifted over the last few years. In the old days, travelers largely complained about bad airline food and a lack of legroom once they were on the plane. Today, the drama has moved into the terminal, where grabby TSA agents, long lines, and ridiculous security procedures involving baggies and miniature bottles of shampoo capture the angst of the frequent flier.
Believe it or not, as of this year you can actually do something about airport security headaches. If you're willing to put up a small amount of cash, a pair of programs designed to speed you through the checkpoint are now available--and they work.
TSA PreCheck: You Can Leave Your Shoes On
Perhaps the most notable security streamlining program is run by the Transportation Security Administration and is called TSA PreCheck (look for the logo with a big check mark). Technically a pilot program, PreCheck is already rolled out in 16 of the best airports in the United States, and the TSA says it is coming to another 17 airports by the end of 2012. That will cover the vast majority of the country's busiest terminals.
PreCheck gives you a few special perks once you're in the security line. You get to keep your shoes, belt, and jacket on. You don't have to remove your laptop from your carry-on bag. And you don't have to remove your "3-1-1" baggie of toiletries, either. In other words, you plop your bag on the conveyer belt and walk through the x-ray scanner--much as you would have done in 1983. In many cases, special lanes (sans the "nudie shot" millimeter-wave scanner) are available for PreCheck travelers, so the process is even faster.
The system is still in its infancy, so bugs remain in the process. Not every checkpoint offers PreCheck services, and PreCheck may not be offered for every flight you take, even if the airport has it available. In short, you still have to get to the airport at the same early time as you used to, because PreCheck might not work on any given trip. But like most people, I'd rather spend extra time sitting at the gate instead of standing in line.
PreCheck applications were originally limited to elite frequent fliers, but now anyone can apply. To do so, you start by completing an extensive online application at the Global Online Enrollment System website. Here, select the "Trusted Traveler Program" for your application and fill it out. The application includes a background check, and after a week or so you'll be notified of your approval or denial. If approved, the final step is an in-person interview with TSA itself. My interview is still pending--the backlog for an interview, as I write this, is nearly two months long--but most users report that they are little more than formalities. After the interview, you receive an ID number, which you type into the "Known Traveler" field when booking a flight online. This is embedded into your boarding pass, and when that is scanned, you are (hopefully) selected for the speedy screening. (And yes, it works with smartphone boarding passes, too.)
The cost for PreCheck is $100, and your application is good for five years. Children 12 and under can accompany a user through PreCheck lanes.
International travelers who sign up for PreCheck are also eligible for Global Entry, a related program operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that eases your return into the country when you're abroad. Global Entry employs the same user ID number as PreCheck.
CLEAR: Another Way to End-Run Security
A somewhat competing program is CLEAR, and it's a revival of a program of the same name that went dark in 2009 after the company that operated it went bankrupt. Now CLEAR is back and operating in four airports in the United States (Orlando, Denver, San Francisco, and Dallas/Fort Worth), with more promised soon.
CLEAR offers a slightly different value proposition than PreCheck, primarily letting you bypass the line leading up to the metal detectors. Once you register for CLEAR--a process similar to that for PreCheck--you receive a card that you present to baby-blue-clad CLEAR employees who man special stations located at an airport's security checkpoints. (SFO, for example, has six.) At a CLEAR station, you are physically scanned--using either your thumbprint or an iris scan--and whisked through to the metal detectors beyond, jumping the line. But CLEAR doesn't earn you anything special beyond that. You still have to remove belts, laptops, and so on.
CLEAR costs $179 per year, making it a considerably bigger investment. You can refer a second person to receive a rate of $50 per year. A corporate discount is available. And users may take children under 18 with them through the system for free.
CLEAR and PreCheck aren't integrated, but at airports where both are offered, the two tend to work together informally. In Orlando, CLEAR agents, for example, will escort PreCheck passengers to the proper security lanes after they've cleared the biometric scan.