Clear Secure, Inc., often just known as CLEAR, is an American technology company that operates biometric travel document verification systems at major United States airports and stadiums. It was established in 2010, received certification under the SAFETY Act (Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act of 2002) by the United States Department of Homeland Security in June of 2012, and began its introduction in America’s airports soon thereafter.
With CLEAR membership, passengers have their own dedicated queue for the first step of the TSA security line – up to when the TSA officer checks one’s I.D. (you may not need to show your boarding pass anymore – here’s why). Once cleared by CLEAR, passengers are then funneled into the regular electronic/”X-ray” screening lines for either TSA PreCheck (if they have PreCheck membership), or the “regular” line (if they don’t).
CLEAR charges its customers $189 per year for this expedited service, however, the price can be lowered (or even free) if the user is a member of Delta SkyMiles®, United MileagePlus®, or holds various flavors of American Express credit cards.
CLEAR is essentially a “skip the line” pass, ahead of one’s fellow travelers who don’t have CLEAR, whether or not they have TSA PreCheck. And in a December 20th write-up, Slate, an online magazine that covers current affairs, politics, and culture in the U.S., devoted a post to how awful CLEAR was.
The author, David Zipper, explained that CLEAR’s entire hustle is, “Pay us money and give us your biometric data, and in return you can jump in front of other people to access an essential federal service.”
Zipper also explained how airports benefit from CLEAR offering access in their respective facilities:
According to an investigation by OneZero, airports receive 10 to 12 percent of the revenue from CLEAR members who sign up within airport property. An individual CLEAR membership costs $189 a year, which is 12 times the price of TSA Pre (though some credit cards and airlines offer CLEAR discounts). According to the OneZero report, airports continue receiving a cut of CLEAR’s membership fee for as long as the person remains subscribed. The income can be substantial; OneZero found that Clear Secure paid $3 million to Los Angeles International Airport in 2019.
Zipper acknowledged this isn’t the first time a government entity has, “brought the profit motive into a part of public life where it does not belong.” He used bail bonds and TurboTax as examples. He also suggested that, regardless of the annoyance of passengers who don’t have CLEAR, who watch CLEAR members get through the TSA queues faster than, and legally cut ahead of them, CLEAR will continue because it makes more profits for the government entities involved.
He ended his piece with, “Skewed incentives like these are predictable when a profit-seeking company acts as a gatekeeper for a public service. It couldn’t be clearer.”
Zipper obviously thinks that CLEAR makes the playing field unfair for anyone who flies. Granted he acknowledged this isn’t the first time something like this has happened; not even to a public entity.
But if you think about it, “paying for better service” happens ALL the time.
For U.S. government agencies:
- Want to get your passport faster? Pay for expedited service.
- Want to get a Global Entry interview faster? Pay to travel to a place that’s doing interviews in the nearer future.
- Want the Post Office to get something to its destination faster? Pay for overnight service.
- Want your forms from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be processed faster? Fill out form I-907 and pay for it.
For State and County government agencies:
- Want your building plans reviewed faster? Pay for expedited service.
- Have a corporation and want the State of Delaware to fulfill your request faster? Pay for it.
- Same goes for the State of Washington.
- And Pennsylvania.
- And Arizona.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re paying to skip to the head of an actual line or a virtual one. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying the government entity directly, or paying a private entity for the access. Either way, it’s been going on, virtually everywhere, for a long, long time.
Is it “fair” to be able to pay and get a better position in a queue? Frankly, it’s a very Your Mileage May Vary situation. Chances are those who can and do pay for such position will probably say yes. Those who can’t and don’t (and those like David Zipper, who think about those outside of their own, small circle), are more likely to say no.
It’s like asking if it’s “fair” that some people can buy first class plane tickets from L.A. to Melbourne on Qantas, or Solid Gold OVO x Air Jordans, or multi-million dollar houses, while others are living paycheck to paycheck, or are having to accept handouts for food, clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, our country is one of varying degrees of “haves” and “have nots,” and that extends to people having CLEAR membership, or standing in a longer queue.
Is it “fair?” Whether you say it is or isn’t, it’s still just an opinion, not fact. But we can agree that “it is what it is.” Profit-seeking entities (including the Federal Government) acting as gatekeepers for public services are willing to increase profits by offering expedited services, even at the expense of those who can’t or won’t pay for them. People with money to spare are willing and able to pay for said services in exchange for saving time, also at the expense of others. There’s nothing to disincentivize either, and “fairness” is secondary.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary