Like some 10 million others, I am a member of TSA PreCheck, the federal program through which Americans can access faster airport security lines while keeping their shoes on and their laptops in their bags as they pass through the scanner. Applying for TSA Pre, as it’s often called, requires providing fingerprints and undergoing a background check, as well as paying $78 every five years.
When TSA Pre first rolled out in 2013, its efficiency suggested genuine progress. But that feels like a long time ago.
At Virginia’s Dulles Airport recently, I idled in a lengthy TSA Pre queue as the handful of people in another line to my left got far speedier service. This was thanks to Clear Secure, a publicly traded company. Clear Secure’s identity-verification product, CLEAR, is entirely separate from TSA Pre; its members typically pay over $100 per year to have their retinas and fingerprints scanned at airports. After a member’s identity is confirmed, Clear Secure workers usher them straight to a TSA agent, ahead of everyone else.
When I finally reached the end of the TSA Pre line, a Clear Secure employee instructed me to back up so she could place a CLEAR member in front of me. The CLEAR member turned to me and apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I hate this process, too.” She told me she had only joined CLEAR because she was sick of all the line-cutting.
That is the entirety of CLEAR’s offer to American flyers: 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. Unlike with TSA Pre, whose purpose is to speed up the entire airport safety system, there is no public benefit to CLEAR’s role in the screening process; it’s simply a way for a company—and airports themselves—to make money at the expense of passengers.
Worse, its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function.
CLEAR was born during the aftermath of 9/11, when airport security lines suddenly seemed interminable due to the rapid introduction of new rules and procedures. Beyond airports, CLEAR is now also available in a handful of large venues like New York’s Yankee Stadium and Denver’s Coors Field. Last year, Clear Secure went public on the New York Stock Exchange at a $6 billion valuation, the travel industry’s biggest IPO of 2021. The company’s ticker is “YOU,” reflecting its tautological motto: “You are you.”
Clear Secure CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker has big plans for her company’s core product. In a profile in Forbes last year she said that “We want Clear to become part of people’s daily habit, to go from 12 times a year using it—which is how people on average were using it in airports—to 12 times a day.” For now, however, a recent SEC filing states that “the company derives substantially all of its revenue from subscriptions to its consumer aviation service.” In an email, a CLEAR spokesperson said that the company has over 14 million members (some of whom presumably use its free, non-airport product), and that “we are focused on innovation and making experiences safer and easier for all American travelers.”
Clear Secure has inked business deals with over 40 American airports that lease the company space to sell CLEAR memberships as well as the floor area for the lines CLEAR members use before reaching TSA security checks. (At airports like Dulles, the airport authority and airlines manage the space leading to a TSA agent, and TSA handles security processes from that point forward.)
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.
Airports empower Clear Secure’s employees to issue instructions to all flyers going through security—including those who never signed up for CLEAR. According to Robert Yingling, the director of corporate communications for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (which manages Dulles), “Because we have a contract with [Clear Secure], their ambassadors are authorized to take an active role in queue management.” (Yingling declined to share how much money MWAA receives from Clear Secure through its contract.)
It’s worth pausing to consider the incentives created by these financial relationships.
Because airports collect extra revenue from those who sign up for CLEAR, an exasperating experience for non-CLEAR passengers has an upside. After all, the annoyance of watching CLEAR members go ahead of them in security lines could induce more people to enroll in CLEAR, as the woman I met at Dulles did. Assuming, that is, that they can afford it.
Such distortions might be acceptable if CLEAR enhanced the efficiency or safety of airport security, but neither is the case. TSA Pre is a federal program that already capitalizes on the opportunity to identify frequent, low-risk flyers and offer them expedited security screening. Clear Secure offers no such advantages; customers must separately purchase TSA Pre if they want to keep wearing their loafers once they reach the scanner. CLEAR is simply a way to pay extra to jump the queue accessing a federally mandated process.
This is hardly the first time that the United States has brought the profit motive into a part of public life where it does not belong. Consider bail bond companies, which charge usurious fees to those desperate to get loved ones out of jail. The industry has long fought reform efforts to eliminate the bonds, which disproportionately burden low-income Americans and are of dubious value in reducing crime.
Or consider TurboTax, Intuit’s tax filing software whose entire raison d’être lies in the needless complexity of IRS forms. Intuit collects as much as $1.6 billion in annual income from its TurboTax products, and investigations by ProPublica and OpenSecrets found that the company has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress to keep the IRS from simplifying its processes (which would undercut the need to purchase TurboTax).
Now that Clear Secure is embedded within airports, the company has every reason to ensure that Congress and TSA let it keep profiting from airport line-cutting. And, like airports themselves, the company has little cause for concern if the security experience of non-CLEAR members grows more irritating.
Skewed incentives like these are predictable when a profit-seeking company acts as a gatekeeper for a public service. It couldn’t be clearer.