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Paying to skip the TSA line is tempting, but what's the catch?

Skipping the long TSA lines have become yet another cost being tacked on to air travel, but what's the best option?
Posted at 4:23 AM, Feb 03, 2023

Airport security lines are almost a given when traveling.

The Sept. 11 attacks led to the creation of government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, and federal regulations tightened up security in the aftermath.

Since then, how people get through security has continued to evolve. While they have figured out how to use state-of-the-art scanners and other technology, one very visible problem has stuck around.

"Here we are, 22 some odd years later, where we're still trying to figure out how to keep the line short," said Jeff Price, a professor of aviation at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "We're still trying to figure out how to keep them moving. A lot of people don't understand that moving the lines quickly is not just an efficiency function and a passenger experience element; it's also a security element because the more passengers I have packed into a public area waiting to go through the screening process, the more vulnerable I am to things like suicide bombers, active shooters."

Price knows this firsthand from his past experience as an assistant security director at Denver International Airport and as a manager of a smaller regional airport. He told Scripps News there are a few distinctions within security.

Most airports rely on the TSA to administer the process. A handful, including San Francisco and Kansas City, rely on private contractors, but they all adhere to tight TSA guidelines, making them all look the same in operation.

But the lines can look very different depending on the airport and how much a person is willing to pay.

Airport security lines now have multiple, tiered options for getting through. 

There's the regular line where all the rules apply, there are no extra costs and security just needs to check a boarding pass and ID.

For $70, travelers can pay for a five-year membership of TSA PreCheck, a government-run service with a separate airport line. Some rules are relaxed, like being able to keep shoes on. In exchange, the member gives a little more information and consents to a background check.

For $100, there's PreCheck plus five years of Global Entry, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It lets you zip by customs when coming back from abroad, but it requires a bit more work before, including an in-person interview.

Then for $189 a year, there's CLEAR. It's the only private airport security line-jumping service that has a contract to work with the government, but the company needs a lot more information about its members, including biometric data like facial recognition and fingerprints.

"What you're buying with CLEAR is you're buying a front-of-the-line pass," Price said. "It really doesn't have a strong security element to it. It's just moving it to the front of the line. You still have to go through the PreCheck line or the regular line once you're through CLEAR so that we can still run the same security processes on you. It's just once you've done CLEAR, we know biometrically you are who you say you are."

Although CLEAR has a head start on collecting biometric data, the TSA is evaluating whether and how to use that data itself. Down the road, it might be part of getting a PreCheck membership.

Though TSA having that data can sound concerning, there's some accountability built in.

"There are a series of existing protections, existing laws, on the books relating back to the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Recovery Act," said Patty Cogswell, former TSA deputy administrator. "All of these say that the U.S. government must go through a process to say, 'Why am I collecting this? How will I use it? How will I keep it safe? What are the risks to privacy of me holding it? How will I mitigate those risks?'"

Cogswell is now a partner on national security and defense at the consulting firm Guidehouse, which works with both government agencies and private companies. In the last few years, her firm has worked against legislation that would expand CLEAR's role in the security process. She warned that any private firm won't necessarily be following the same regulations.

"They have different motivations," Cogswell said. "Not highlighting one entity in particular, but unless they have that kind of process where they have to go through in order for the end entity to acquire them, their motivation is to move quickly to get something to market fast. These are the type of incentives you need to align in a law enforcement and security space because you want something that's got a high quality."

Although, as Price noted, there's still a business interest in companies keeping your data safe.

"Any time you're going to give your information to a private company, they might not have to meet certain federal government standards for cybersecurity like TSA has to," Price said. "But by the same token, they want to protect their client information from public distribution or from being hacked, so they might even have greater protections than what the federal government would require."

Much of this ties back to a broader issue in flying: extra fees. Things like seat selection, checking bags and sometimes even carry-on bags can be subject to fees. And even bag fees can affect the security line.

"I completely understand why the airlines said, 'I have a really solid revenue stream by using the belly of the plane to transport cargo,'" Cogswell said. "So every bag of a passenger means that much less cargo I can take. The flip side of it is what that meant for security is all of the bags that used to go down to the bottom of the airport through the big machines that are built for speed — suddenly, we're going through the checkpoint. TSA didn't get additional money for that."

With CLEAR set for now as the only private option and the government offering several options, jumping the line is here to stay — with those built-in costs.

The good news is consumers might be able to get around it. Summer Hull, director of travel content from the travel consumer advice blog The Points Guy, told Scripps News more.

"TSA PreCheck — which I believe they just dropped the price to $70 for five years — and there are a wide range of credit cards that will cover that application fee that will last you five years, and some of those credit cards are an annual fee of about that amount, so you can make your money back really quickly," Hull said. "And then there is CLEAR. CLEAR is by far the most expensive of the three, but there are also credit cards that will cover its annual fee. If you're a member of United or Delta's frequent flier programs or you have one of their credit cards, you may qualify for a lower rate."