The next time you’re stuck in a long security line, consider this: At most U.S. airports it’s possible to buy your way out of the wait.
All major domestic airlines and some smaller carriers offer programs that allow people to skirt lines leading to the taxpayer-funded Transportation Security Administration checkpoints even if they don’t qualify for the government’s expedited security program.
For a price.
While that arrangement seems fine to people within the airline and travel industry — and is lauded by people who use it — critics say that it unfairly allows businesses to profit by taking advantage of a critical government function.
“Buying your way to the front of the line — that has nothing to do with the level of security,” former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who filed legislation in 2012 to prohibit the practice, said in an interview. “Why should you have other folks stand in longer lines for a federal government program, the TSA?”
The arrangement is made possible because the TSA doesn’t control the airport real estate leading to its metal detectors and x-ray machines. That means airports and airlines have control of the lines and can queue up passengers any way they want. At scores of airports there are separate lines for privileged passengers.
After thousands of passengers missed flights this spring due to long lines and officials forecast that this summer could be even worse — a symptom of increasing passengers and the declining number of TSA screeners — the practice of allowing some people to sidestep the lines is receiving new attention. Elite travelers are increasingly seeking ways around the lines, while some critics are crying foul.
All four major airlines and most smaller carriers offer their top customers — those flying first class or the highest-tier frequent fliers — access to the head of the line to be screened. The privilege can also be purchased by anyone at some carriers. American Airlines’ Five Star Service starts at $250 a flight and includes a personal escort and other benefits. Another company, CLEAR, offers shorter lines to members who pay a yearly fee.
“I don’t think it’s really fair,” Steven Niessner, 55, a Golden, Colorado, resident, said while waiting to catch a flight at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. “It smacks of the privileged getting better handling by paying more money.”
The practice takes unfair advantage of the government’s need to line up passengers to check them for weapons and bombs, said Randolph Cohen, a lecturer at Harvard Business School. “The airlines should not get to control access to TSA anymore than car companies should control who gets in a short line at the DMV,” he said.
“Speed through security with exclusive expedited security lines at select airports,” Delta Air Lines Inc. says about its Sky Priority program on a company website. The service is available at more than 80 airports to customers at the highest levels of its rewards program and to those buying first-class or business-class tickets, according to the website.
$10 a Ticket
The other three major U.S. carriers — Southwest Airlines Co., American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. — all have similar programs, according to their websites. JetBlue Airways Corp. advertises speedier screening lanes for as little as $10 above the regular ticket price.
CLEAR, a subscription service for $179 per year, offers to escort passengers to the front of the line after using its computer portals to scan their documents. Delta and CLEAR entered into a partnership in April that will allow some of the airline’s passengers access to the program for free or a reduced fee, according to a press release.
“Being a CLEAR member means you can breeze right past the long lines and go straight to screening,” CLEAR’s website says. CLEAR has agreements at 13 airports and is expected to expand to one more, Seattle, according to the company.
The programs are part of a broader effort by airlines and airports to pamper celebrities and the wealthiest passengers. American Airlines has a separate entry at Los Angeles International Airport for elite customers. Not only do they get expedited check-in without fending off paparazzi, but they enter the TSA screening area through a private hallway. The airport is also constructing a separate entry lounge for glitterati willing to pay as much as $1,800 per trip, the Los Angeles Times reported.
While these programs often use words like “expedited security,” none of them alter how the TSA conducts screening, according to the agency. People entering through shorter lines get the same level of scrutiny. All such arrangements are also subject to TSA airport security reviews, according to the agency.
Sidestepping the lines also has nothing to do with TSA’s program to speed security for people deemed to be of low risk, called PreCheck. People who qualify for PreCheck after undergoing a background check and paying an $85 fee have special lines that move faster because they don’t have to take off shoes or remove laptops and liquids from their bags.
An airline’s streamlined queue saved Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition advocacy group, from missing a flight a few years ago at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
After a meeting with United officials ran long, an airline manager at the airport escorted him to a special portal for its top customers, Mitchell said in an interview.
This post was excerpted from Bloomberg.com. Full attribution and a link to this article follow directly.
Published by Bloomberg.com
June 23, 2016 — 5:00 AM EDT
Written by Alan Levin
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