August 17, 2006

Security Reality check

Maybe you've seen an article like this in the last few weeks about new express security lanes at airports. The premise is both deceptively simple in concept and deceptively complicated in execution, which is probably why most people are deceived.

The program requires people to provide fingerprints or an iris scan upon enrollment, and to submit to a background check conducted by the security agency and the Department of Homeland Security. When applicants are approved, their biometric data is placed on a plastic card; at the airport, their iris scan or fingerprints are matched against the card.

These "registered travelers," who pay $80 a year for the title, get to waltz past the rest of us through their own private security gate. No line, no nothing.

Well, not "no nothing." I happened to be in the Orlando airport a year ago where the Clear program got started and after a few minutes of talking with the representatives, an obvious and inconvenient fact came out: registered travelers have to go through the exact same security checks as everybody else*. All that biometric, background check nonsense is a red herring, designed to make you think that some sort of security pre-screening explains why certain people get special treatment. Nope, they get special treatment because they paid for it. The only thing this program does is let you pay $80 to cut in front of everybody else in line. I suppose it's fine if airports really want to create yet another perk for business travelers/rich people, but since that might piss off the rest of us, they're doing it under the name of security.

And by the way, the airports don't add a new line for these lucky people. They take one line away from everybody else, thereby making our waits even longer. I suppose the best thing to hope would be for enough people signed up for this that the VIP line becomes just as long as the regular ones.

*Actually, there is one small difference. VIPs are exempt from "automatic selectee screening," in which travelers are randomly stopped by an impersonal red light for a bag search. If this happened frequently -- or ever -- there might be something to this, but the odds of any one person being stopped are extremely small. You are almost guaranteed to spend more time registering for the program than you ever would being randomly searched.

For kicks, read the VIP FAQ explaining the benefits of the program:

A more consistent, fast and stress-free airport experience. Exemption from automatic selectee screening. Access to a designated Clear lane staffed by professional, courteous Clear attendants. Extraordinary customer service. Increased productivity-time spent working, not waiting. Fewer missed flights.

That's six benefits! Too bad all but the second one mean exactly the same thing: no line.

Of course, there are better ideas out there. Like this one. (What do you say, Jim?)

Update: It actually gets worse. Looking around a little more I see that: 1) there are now prototype government-run versions of the program I saw in Orlando. So now it's our tax money going to allowing rich people to cut in front of us (and not going for actual security measures). And 2) new technology that can check shoes for explosives without passengers having to remove them may be deployed first in the VIP lines. Yep, that means that a system designed to eliminate some hassle for travelers will be used first to help those passengers who are being hassled the least already. Again, there's no security rationale for this. It's just a nice bonus for those willing to pay.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


My suggestion is to do what they do at European airports. Let families with younger children (and strollers, car seats, diaper bags, etc.) go into the First Class line (or one of their own). I'm sick of dealing with "me first" Business travelers (which I sometimes am) when I'm trying to wrangle two hyper kids, and it fosters a sense of "we're all in the same boat" mentality when families can go through a line and not feel rushed to control kids, close the stroller, drag the car seat, take off shoes, take off kids shoes, and on and on and on. It's not profiling, it's communities.

I don't know which line wants the traveling retiree couples/groups though, they are just downright annoying in their inability to get the system...

Sounds like money well spent if you aren't white.

I've flown more than 70K miles in the last 15 months, and as many times as I've been stopped, you'd think the name on my boarding pass was "Random Passenger."

Still and all, I had the impression that this was a private-sector service not funded by the government, but by participating airports and air carriers.

There was a piece on NPR about how first-classers cut to the front of security lines that touched on some of these issues:


I think Walter makes Charles's point. So there you have it, non-white types: you can have the same Constitutional rights as anybody else for a mere $80 a year. Of course, the VIP pass only protects against genuinely random searches not "random" ones.

Access to a designated Clear lane staffed by professional, courteous Clear attendants

It is obvious to everyone else that the Scientologists are behind this, right?

If this was done well, it would help to subsidize and improve the present service. ie it would comprise an additional line, the revenue from which would allow possibly yet another additional line for those of us not paying for the VIP service. Everybody gets slightly better service, and some people get much better service. But of course I have no faith that this will be implemented in such a manner.

"(What do you say, Jim?)"

I say that's going overboard, even for a rightwing fascist RethugliKKKan like me.

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