Money Clip: In The Fast Lane

By Peter Finch Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
January 28, 2013

Cliff Kane figures he saved nearly a full day last year. The New York-area marketing researcher is a big-time frequent flier. He took 72 flights on American and United in 2012 and never once waited to go through security. Those lines used to average 15 to 20 minutes each, he says, so that works out to a savings of about 20 hours for the year.

Kane is breezing through airports these days thanks to a system called TSA PreCheck. This expedited security program debuted two years ago and is already in use at 35 U.S. airports.

At the moment there are two ways to join TSA PreCheck:

(1) If you're an "elite" frequent flier on participating airlines, you might get an invitation, at no cost, or (2) you can pay $100, as I did, and get TSA PreCheck certification on your own. It's valid for five years.

Worth the money? Absolutely, say frequent travelers. TSA PreCheck lanes are typically uncrowded and, crucially, don't require you to remove your shoes, coat and belt or take out your toiletries and laptop. "Trust me, I'm very happy with it," says Albert C. Rollins, a customs broker for a freight forwarding company in Dallas. Adds Daniel Palen, a travel blogger who's attending the University of Kansas: "The longest I've waited is maybe 20 or 30 seconds."

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean you can stay on the golf course until the last minute, roaring up to the airport as your flight is about to board. The TSA keeps travelers on their toes by occasionally and randomly rejecting them from PreCheck access. (You find out if you can use the PreCheck lane when the security officer scans your boarding pass. If you're denied, you have to go through the regular security line with the hoi polloi.) Travelers I spoke with reported success rates of 85 percent and up, with more denials typically coming in their first few months of using PreCheck.

I applied for my TSA PreCheck number online at

. One of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection programs that includes PreCheck certification, Global Entry was designed to help frequent travelers enter the country from abroad more quickly. The application took only a few minutes, and I was able to pay with a credit card.

Within a week, I got a notice saying I'd cleared the Global Entry background check. All that remained was an interview with a customs officer. They are available at 24 airports plus government offices in Atlanta and Manhattan. At my interview, lasting no more than 10 minutes, the officer asked me a few questions about my travel schedule, looked at my passport and took my fingerprints. If you really, really hate waiting in line, there's a for-profit outfit that can also help move you along at the airport. Known as Clear and costing $179 a year, it's basically a line-cutting service. You present your fingerprint and a special ID card at Clear kiosks, and you'll get to bypass the normal lines at the ID checkpoint, past all those people waiting to get their driver's licenses or passports checked by the TSA officer.

Clear was born in the early 2000s and once was in 18 airports, but it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. New owners arrived in 2011 and began rolling it out again. So far they've installed Clear in San Francisco, Orlando, Dallas, Denver and White Plains, N.Y. Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker says the company plans to be in the top 30 U.S. airports "as quickly as possible."

You can apply for the service online at

. To complete the application, you'll need to get fingerprinted and have your passport reviewed at one of the airports where Clear does business.

Clear and TSA PreCheck make a powerful combination. Let's say you arrive at the airport and there's a massive line at the ID checkpoint. Your Clear pass lets you avoid it. In the best-case scenario, you're TSA PreCheck-approved and sail through its expedited security line. In the worst case, you are denied PreCheck and have to go through regular security, but you've still skipped the entire line of people waiting to get their IDs checked.

Now if they could just do something about slow play.