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Why must we pay to have a slightly less miserable time at the airport?

TSA PreCheck, Clear, and how the airport splits travelers into haves and have-nots.

Travelers waiting in a long airport security line.
Travelers wait in a long queue at the security checkpoint of Orlando International Airport the day before the Thanksgiving holiday on November 24, 2021.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

As a general rule, the airport is not fun. And this summer, as people prepare to get back out there and airline travel nears pre-pandemic levels, it could be even more of a mess. You can make the ordeal a little less miserable and a little bit quicker if you’re willing to pay for it. Even then, you might not be successful.

Of all the tasks one undertakes during air travel, navigating the security line is among the worst. It is a simultaneously mundane and stressful undertaking; The waiting is deeply boring, and the thought something might go awry and you’ll miss your flight is deeply annoying. Luckily! You have options to try to cut down on time, jump to the front of the line, or go to a different line altogether. Unluckily! Those options are going to cost you.

You may very well decide those costlier options are worth it, especially if you travel a lot. (I have TSA PreCheck, which I’ll talk about later, and I greatly enjoy it.) But that you’re inclined to pay at all points to a bigger issue: Across the economy, there are all sorts of ways for certain people to pay to skip the line, dividing consumers in a vaguely dehumanizing way. The consumer experience has become so bad that letting people try to pay to get around it is a viable business model.

At the airport, travelers are split into microgroups of haves and have-nots based on what they’re willing to fork over, not only in the security line but also at the gate and where they sit on the plane. Instead of letting some people pay to get ahead, wouldn’t it be better if the whole ordeal were just improved for everyone?

Having to wait a little bit longer at the airport isn’t the end of the world, but the situation is far from ideal. According to one analysis of the country’s biggest airports, depending on the time of day and the day of the week, security wait times can stretch well over 30 minutes at peak times at airports such as Newark, Miami International, and Boston Logan. Not fun, indeed.

The stratification of the security line

There are many ways you can pay to jump the line at the airport. As the Washington Post explains, you can pay hundreds of dollars to book concierge services that escort you around. But I’m going to focus on a pair of more common (and domestic) options: TSA PreCheck and Clear, both of which let you move a little faster, albeit in different ways.

TSA PreCheck, launched in 2013, is an expedited screening program. You stand in a separate line and get to avoid some of the most annoying parts of dealing with the regular screening — for instance, you get to keep your shoes on and don’t have to take your laptop out of your bag. (Why anyone still has to take their shoes off at all in the security line is a question for another day.) It costs $85 to apply and, once you’re approved, it lasts for five years. At $17 a year, that’s not a bad deal.

Clear is a private company that verifies identity using biometrics. It’s not available everywhere yet — it’s in about 40 airports — but it’s growing. How it works is members go to a kiosk to get their eyes, fingers, or faces scanned, and once that happens, a Clear “ambassador” escorts them to the front of the TSA line. It costs $179 a year, so compared to PreCheck it’s quite a bit pricier.

Zach Griff, who covers the travel industry for The Points Guy, recommends getting both Clear and PreCheck for the fastest experience in the airport line. He also acknowledges it’s expensive, coming in at about $200 a year total. To people who can’t or don’t want to pay, it’s also not super fair. “There’s no question that Clear kind of stratifies the security line based on means and how often you’re traveling,” he said.

Delta and United Airlines have made investments in Clear; it’s a way for them to give some of their customers a better experience. American Airlines, thus far, has eschewed working with the company. “They’ve repeatedly said that they’d rather invest in services and technologies that are easily accessible to more people,” Griff said.

Both services can be nice for people who have them, but they are a Band-Aid for a bigger problem, which is long security lines and a chronically underfunded, understaffed TSA. The first iteration of Clear went into bankruptcy, in part because TSA was able to cut down line wait times, explained Michael Restovich, senior adviser at global security firm Command Consulting Group and former assistant administrator of security operations at TSA.

Clear also divides travelers in a way that can feel a little gross. If you haven’t bought the service and you’ve been at an airport where Clear is in business, you may have noticed a member cutting in front of you in the security line. Or maybe a Clear ambassador has approached you while you wait frustrated in the regular line, trying to see if your current level of desperation will serve as a selling point. Maybe you think that everyone could move faster if the regular and TSA PreCheck lines were just evenly distributed, or that everybody, TSA PreCheck and not, might be fine keeping on their belts. Not a huge deal, but bothersome.

The situation isn’t always ideal for the people paying.

Because Clear isn’t available everywhere, passengers sometimes still wind up waiting in a bit of a line. “There might be two or three people that are waiting to put their bag on the belt to go through, you don’t necessarily go in front of them,” said Ken Lisaius, vice president of public affairs and communications at Clear. He also noted that Clear offers a free service to reserve a time at the security line in some airports.

The more people get PreCheck, the less advantageous it becomes as those lines get just as long as the regular ones. Moreover, just because you pay for PreCheck doesn’t mean you’ll always get it. Sometimes you get put into the normal line anyway for security reasons because TSA doesn’t want people getting expedited screening every time. In other words, people with TSA PreCheck aren’t always promised the benefits they’re signing up for.

“It’s a shame that they charge $85,” Restovich said. “I think probably if people were willing to submit their application online, it ought to be for nothing. It ought to be if you are cleared.”

“A lot of passengers, I think, get confused thinking that if you’re buying through the problem you’re always going to be TSA PreCheck, and that’s not true,” said Maxel Shabay Izquierdo, a vice president at TSA Council 100, which represents TSA officers. “We like the actual algorithm of unpredictability.” In other words, part of TSA’s approach to security is that passengers don’t exactly know what measures they will and won’t face when they’re at the airport.

But then again, people often find things big and small to get upset about at the airport. “Something’s always going to tick them off,” Izquierdo said. He also pointed out there’s a reason people are recommended to go to the airport early. “There could be lines. Lines are inevitable.”

That being said, the conversation around why someone might want TSA PreCheck or Clear is a nuanced one, and it doesn’t always have to do with speed. Praveen, a 26-year-old law student whose last name has been withheld to protect his privacy, says he believes PreCheck has helped him avoid some risk of racial profiling. “I grew up in a post-9/11 world, so I always tried to mitigate my presence at airports. Let me try to get through this with the least amount of trouble,” he said. TSA Precheck “just expedited the process and gave less time for an issue to occur.” He says before paying for PreCheck in 2019, he got stopped almost every time he went to the airport.

You can pay your way to the front of the line because the line sucks

Price discrimination, where companies charge customers differently for pretty similar goods or services, is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s not limited to travel, though flying can feel particularly bad and opaque.

Businesses charge more all the time to give you the same things faster. Ride-hail companies give you an option to get picked up quicker if you pay a little extra. E-commerce companies will deliver your packages faster, for a price. Sometimes, the pay-to-accelerate stuff is just a nuisance, like at a ski resort or a convenience store. Other times, it’s discriminatory and disturbing, like rich people getting quicker access to Covid-19 vaccines or being sent to the front of the phone queue when trying to get in touch with the IRS.

Time is a valuable commodity, and the economy has become so unequal and the consumer experience so deteriorated that people who can pay to save it do. One 2021 survey found that more than half of consumers are willing to pay for faster deliveries. According to 2018 research from PwC, customers say they were willing to pay up to a 16 percent premium for better service. In dealing with businesses and with the government, having less money — or being less willing to spend it — translates to a time suck. The people who can pay to skip the line or get the faster service do, and everyone else is forced to compete with what feels like a dwindling pool of resources.

The consumer isn’t really the villain here. It’s understandable — if you have the means — to want to pay to get to the front of the line if you can. Companies have also gotten very good at extracting money from people in exchange for something modestly better, or something that’s the same but faster. In places like the airport, this is on full display.

“The airlines have done a fantastic job of extracting revenue from conveniences. That is their business model whether we like it or not,” Griff said.

Would it be better if things were more equal and people didn’t feel tempted to spend for speed? Yes. In the meantime, most of us are stuck in the regular security line, looking over at the Clear people and wondering whether that $179 a year for a retina scan would be worth it after all.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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