Steve Wright was almost giddy as he made his way past grim-faced travelers schlepping — inch-by-inch — through the airport security gantlet.
“I’m happy as heck,” the executive for eyeglass manufacturer and distributor Marchon said at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at San Francisco International Airport last week. Though he still had to endure the ritual strip-down — the shedding of belts, shoes, jackets, laptops — Wright was able to cut in front of scores of passengers with nary a thrown elbow.
He was one of many relieved travelers using a service that deploys fingerprint and iris-imaging biometric technology to prescreen passengers, enabling them to skip long security lanes by displaying their Clear cards at designated entry points.
Clear is just one of several commercial and government programs aimed at making the trek from ticket counter to boarding gate a quicker and more dignified journey. But those efforts to ease the stress of passengers underscore the difficulties of ensuring terrorism-free travel because no one knows if they will weaken security in the long run.
Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said trying to make flying more secure is a complex equation. For example, travelers were required to remove shoes at airport security checkpoints after a terrorist tried to set off bombs in his shoe in late 2001 ona flight from Paris to Miami.
“The world is constantly changing,” he said. “What looks like a risk at any point in time may not be a risk at another point in time.”
For frequent fliers like Wright, though, programs that shave time and reduce hassles at airports are a welcome upgrade in the grueling experience of modern-day air travel.
“I travel a ton,” said Wright, before catching a morning flight to New York City. “There are many things that have gotten worse (with traveling). But this has gotten better. It makes traveling bearable again.”
New York-based Clear recently restarted the card service at SFO as the summer travel season got under way. San Francisco expects a record-breaking year with some 41 million passengers passing through the airport. Mineta San Jose International Airport anticipates the same number of travelers it had last year, 8.3 million, while Oakland International Airport expects about a 5 percent uptick to 9.7 million. For now, no expedited screening services are planned for San Jose or Oakland.
Prescreening services are created mostly for frequent fliers, elite travelers or those willing to pay — a Clear card comes with a $179 fee.
“They are taking care of the people most likely to give (TSA) grief. These are the people who have more power than Ma and Pa Kettle,” Joe Brancatelli, who operates JoeSentMe.com, a website for business travelers, said of the new prescreening services. “They know how to call their Congress member.”
In October, TSA rolled out PreCheck, a free but invitation-only program that allows frequent fliers on American, Delta and Alaska to pass through security without removing their belts, shoes, jackets or laptops. The program will be expanded this year to United Airlines and US Airways, said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers, and will become available at SFO.
“They think it’s time to ratchet things down for frequent fliers who go through this every day,” said Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle.
For now, PreCheck is offered at 15 airports across the country and is expected to be at 35 by the end of the year. “It’s still a pilot program,” Dankers said.
Each PreCheck traveler must be invited to join the program by his airline and is given a boarding pass embedded with a chip. The ticket-holder then enters a designated lane, where a security officer scans the boarding pass. Three beeps mean the traveler can proceed to expedited screening; one beep means he has been randomly selected to pass through the traditional checkpoint.
“It keeps people from gaming the system,” Dankers said.
Another program popular with international travelers is Global Entry, which allows preapproved travelers to bypass traditional passport inspection in the United States and costs $100 for five years.
The prescreening programs represent an effort to maintain security against terror attacks while limiting headaches for air travelers. The TSA, which faces constant scrutiny for the invasiveness of passenger screenings, can also be criticized for security lapses.
“On one hand, Congress bashes them for making it miserable for people who fly. But no one in Congress wants to be soft on security,” Bender said.
Airport security is anything but a science, experts say.
While frequent fliers appear to be among the least-threatening group of travelers, there is a risk that a terrorist organization could recruit such a person — or plant a bomb on a PreCheck traveler unbeknown to him, airport security expert Bloom said. Prescreenings such as those offered by Clear could subconsciously cause inspectors to drop their guard, he added.
“The bottom line is: I don’t think we have adequate, empirical data to know how effective screenings are,” Bloom said.
The good news, he added, is that terrorist attacks are “such a low-frequency event” that the safety odds are in favor of the traveling public.