Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

Summary: As some of you may know, my job as a systems architect for one of the world's largest systems integration firms requires that I do a large amount of travel. Typically, I'm away from home about four days out of the week.

TOPICS: Security

clearcard.jpgAs some of you may know, my job as a systems architect for one of the world's largest systems integration firms requires that I do a large amount of travel. Typically, I'm away from home about four days out of the week. Naturally, this results in going through a lot of airport security lines. Like many frequent air travelers, I try to be loyal to a single airline in order to build up frequent flyer points in order to increase my status and possibility for receiving preferential treatment on that airline. In my case, I recently achieved enough points in order to qualify for "Gold" OnePass Elite status on Continental Airlines. Among other benefits, this entitles me to shorter, preferential bag drop-off lines, a higher potential for First Class upgrades, priority boarding, as well as use of the separate EliteAccess TSA security lines at terminals that Continental controls.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately depending on how you view the situation -- I happen to live near Continental's primary East Coast hub, Newark Liberty International Airport, so its the one that I use the most. Continental effectively controls this airport, as approximately 85 percent of all departing flights are Continental's. Newark Liberty is ranked as the tenth busiest airport in the entire country, the fifth busiest in the US for international travel, and is the second busiest airport in the New York metropolitan area, handling a volume of approximately 36.3 million passengers per year, versus JFK's 47.8 and LaGuardia's 25.3, according to 2007 statistics.

Do you have TSA airport security line rage? It's going to get worse if you fly out of any of Continental-controlled airports. Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

continental-ewr.jpgSuffice it to say despite my OnePass Elite Gold status on Continental, the EliteAccess TSA lines aren't significantly better than the regular non-elite lines. Sure, the bag drop-off is faster, as I usually only have an average of a 5 minute wait, but on the TSA lines on a Monday morning at 7am when I have an 8am flight? I can expect a wait of anywhere between 20 to 40 minutes at Liberty, and up to an hour or more on extremely high volume days. Newark Liberty Terminal C, the main domestic terminal and the one Continental has been given primary control over by the New York Pork Authority, has 3 security checkpoints, each of which has approximately 4 TSA lanes. Most of the time, however, due to staffing issues, only 2 lanes per checkpoint are typically open, so there's a severe bottleneck as to how many people can be moved through at a time.

What's a weary business traveler to do? Well, if you're lucky enough to have an airport with TSA lanes using the CLEAR Registered Traveller service you can get through a security checkpoint in a matter of minutes, provided you pay $99.00 a year for the service and submit to a thorough TSA background check.  CLEAR issues you a cool-looking plastic card with an embedded microchip which stores your biometric "favorites" on it, such as your preferred finger to help speed up the authentication process. The kiosks, which are manufactured by L-1 Identity Solutions and integrated for CLEAR by Lockheed Martin, are absolutely state-of-the-art. While the kiosks do communicate with a centralized datacenter to retrieve CLEAR flyer biometric data, they do not save records of members going in and out of the lanes for use by the TSA. In other words, your privacy as far as your movements go stays private.

Also See: CLEAR and Continental Gallery

I happen to be a member of the CLEAR service and I think the technology and the service is excellent. On the occasions when I have been able to use it, such as at San Francisco International and in Denver, I've been able to bypass hour-long TSA lines simply by walking up to a CLEAR lane, inserting my card, and having my fingerprint scanned. Once authenticated, a concierge sweeps you to the very front of the TSA line, assists you with your carry-on bags and garments, and helps you remove your shoes and laptop for scanning as usual. It's like being treated like a rock star or a Hollywood celebrity.

Worst case scenario? At Orlando airport, CLEAR's largest, where they experienced a severe TSA staffing problem on one particularly busy day, CLEAR travelers had to wait a whole 8 minutes to get through the security line. This was considered such a serious service failure by CLEAR that their CEO, Steven Brill, had to discipline his staff. 8 minutes! If only I were so lucky at Newark.

But don't take my word for it, listen to Wade Cloyd, who is Terminal Manager for Denver International Airport:

Registered Traveler members are seeing a real advantage in security screening wait times at Denver. A growing number of travelers are seeing there is a TSA program that provides an alternative to the ever-increasing security lines. Enrollments in Denver continue to grow each month as do the number of members using the Clear verification kiosks daily.

Denver's program is different from that at other airports. We have wrapped Registered Traveler as a program within our Total Queue Management package which provides a number of personnel and services at all three security checkpoints. Verified Identity Pass/Clear and Security Point Media are subcontractors/partners with HSS, our primary contractor. This created a different business relationship than Clear had been used to, but all parties adapted quickly and work well together. Clear operates quickly and with a corporate commitment to achievement, excellence and customer service that is second to none. They have been very responsive to our needs and requests.

Unfortunately, it looks like travelers going through Continental's main hubs -- Newark and Houston -- aren't likely to realize the benefits of a CLEAR membership anytime soon. It seems that Continental doesn't like the idea of a premium service that competes with its own EliteAccess program. According to correspondence we have received, the following is Continental's official position on the matter:

Continental recognizes the potential value of a registered traveler program, and has been urging the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to allow fundamental enhancements to the program, including eliminating the requirement that customers remove shoes, jackets and divest computers. We believe such changes would add true value to the program, however the TSA has yet to feel comfortable providing such enhancements.

All major U.S. carriers share the same view point. A review of industry thoughts on the program can be found at

As you know, the primary responsibility of TSA is the security of the air transport system and we understand that they need to weigh any benefits provided with this responsibility.

Continental has developed a number of programs to improve customer service at the airport. For eligible customers, EliteAccess allows for expedited processing at many security checkpoints (including both Newark Liberty Terminals C and A), and also provides expedited processing at ticket counters, the boarding gate and with baggage handling. For more information on EliteAccess, go to

Please be assured that secure and efficient processing for all customers at airport checkpoints is a priority for us. We work daily with the TSA and airport operators to identify improvements to customer service at the checkpoint and we will continue to monitor developments and conduct a thorough review of vendor opportunities, to ensure we are providing the best product possible.

Until we see some real changes made at the TSA level for the Registered Traveler program like not requiring shoes and jackets to come off, laptops taking out, etc - we do not see the benefits of such a program.

No time is really saved thru those programs with the exception that folks get to move to the front of the line which is what we offer with our EliteAccess program."

As far as I am concerned this is an unsubstantial corporate fluff answer and Continental should be ashamed of themselves for actively obstructing a company that is trying to make travel easier for its customers. The link they are referring to also points to a letter that was written two years ago and does not reflect the current position most airlines currently now take with CLEAR. I'm not exactly sure what Continental has a problem with. Is it creating a culture of elitism for their highest volume business customers? Well, they might want to consider changing their EliteAccess branding if that's something they are worried about. Continental also maintains its own elite Presidents Club lounges in 26 locations and partners with Delta and other airlines with preferred lounges for travelers who want to take advantage of that service, which costs $300-$400.00 per year depending on your OnePass Elite status.

I happen to be a member of Continental's Presidents Club because I like having the ability to relax, escape the crowds, use my laptop with the free Wi-Fi and have a few drinks if I get caught in a bad weather or otherwise delayed situation, or if I want to get to the airport early and have a less stressful experience. It may sound like a lot of money, but it's a premium service I happen to enjoy using. This is the same way I feel about CLEAR. If I'm willing to pay a premium for it, and if the TSA is on board with it, then I should be able to use it. By all means, lets get it installed in every single lane and bring the price of subscription down, and make it analogous to EZ-Pass for a business traveller. According to CLEAR, over 60 percent of its members are already members of an airline loyalty program. So in other words, most of the people that want to use CLEAR are already spending tons of money on their favorite carrier to begin with. As a OnePass Gold Elite member I'm probably spending an average of $25,000-$30,000 a year or more with Continental. I don't see exactly what they are worried about.

The entire shoe and laptop removal argument they are posing is also completely worthless. True, it does take a few minutes to remove shoes and laptops and get them through the scanner, and I agree it's a pain, but with CLEAR but you have the capability of bypassing extremely long waits. CLEAR recently completed a one year pilot of GE scanning technology at Orlando airport which allows shoes to be scanned while still standing in them -- they hope to have these systems installed en masse once the TSA approves it for general use, which could happen at any time. As to other concerns relating to TSA security requirements such as removing laptops from bags, CLEAR currently has a $500,000 Innovation Prize award open for anyone who invents any kind of technology that helps improve the TSA process -- this includes designing more efficient tables, and improved scanning systems.

The CLEAR obstructionism by Continental at Newark Terminal C is unique because unlike other airports in which the Terminal or Airport are the negotiating authority, Newark Liberty is controlled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which allows an airline with majority presence in a terminal to be the the primary negotiating authority.  Effectively this situation is the same at Houston's George Bush International, in which Continental has majority control of the terminals. At terminals at 18 US airports, however, CLEAR has successfully negotiated agreements with many airlines, including British Airways, Air France, AirTran and Virgin Atlantic, which in the New York area allowed them to enter JFK International, LaGuardia Terminal B and Newark Terminal B.

Sources close to the industry say that CLEAR will announcing shortly a major airline partnership which will greatly increase its presence at US airports, and will also be partnering with international registered traveller programs.

I've recently been on TSA EliteAccess lines at Newark that have taken me more than 40 minutes to get through and then only had maybe 10 minutes to spare for getting to my gate before boarding began, or got there as boarding was underway -- this is after arriving at the airport an hour and a half early, and having been on line at the EliteAccess bag drop off for 20 minutes first before getting onto the TSA line at one of the checkpoints. It sure would have been nice to spend the 30 or 40 minutes at my expensive President's Club or grabbing something to eat instead of sitting on line.

Is Continental being unreasonably obstructive to the CLEAR registered traveler program? Talk Back and let me know.

The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topic: Security


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Totally moot

    Sorry, but Continental could have $5 international tickets and total no-wait-at-all boarding. Whatever it is that they've done to their seats is enough that quite a few of us (and I've had seatmates with the same reaction) only subject ourselves to the torture instruments that Continental calls "seats" when required to by law.

    Or, in my case, I just awarded Continental the unique status of "if the only air carrier to that destination is Continental, I'll walk."
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Hurry up and wait

    Just like it was in the military. Hurry up and wait.

    It's gotten less and less practical to fly.

    I'm only a 3-hour drive from NY city. I used to take the commuter hop, but now it's faster to drive, and that's on a GOOD day. Add in flight cancellations, air traffic delays, weather delays, and hours to check-in and clear security; it doesn't make sense to fly any more. Driving is faster, or even better is drive to a commuter train terminal and ride the rails. Straight into Grand Central, not way out at EWR or LGA with another hour or two to get into midtown.

    Last year, we drove from NY to Orlando. Our neighbors flew. We left for home Saturday morning, got home Saturday night. Their flight from Orlando was delayed, so they missed their connection in DC. Then they were held over in DC for 3 more days waiting for a flight! Yeah, 19 hours was a long drive, but I'm glad we didn't fly. Gold-card lounges are fine, but I don't want to waste 3 vacation days sitting in one hoping for a flight.

    CLEAR might help some, and I'm not surprised to hear that Continental is fighting it, but it's not the only problem in the air travel industry.

    It's ironic that a car traveling at 65 mph arrives sooner than an airplane traveling at 650 mph...

    Wasn't that a junior-high algebra problem? A plane leaves from "City A" . . .

    and we didn't have to take CLEAR into account!
    • Connect? On a flight to Orlando

      Though I'm sorry to hear your friend was delayed in making it from NY to Orlando, I think he could use a few pointers about traveling in this day. If you are flying from NY, why would you ever book a connecting flight to Orlando? Especially when you can drive to DC.

      Always fly direct if you can. If you can't drive somewhere and then fly direct. The risk of missing a connection these days is too high.
      • Nonstop

        Flights that are Nonstop are always best. Flights can be listed as "direct" and still have to stop along the way to let passengers on the initial stage disembark. That's what leads to the fun announcement containing the portion "for those flying on to {city} please remain on the plane."

        Airtran, JetBlue, United, Southwest, and Delta all offer non-stop services from New York to Orlando. Some through LGA, some through EWR, some through JFK, but all for only a 2 and a half hour flight.
  • Continental is right

    That reply makes it clear (hmmph) that they see CLEAR as a competition
    to their own programs to pamper only the customers who pay extra.
    And whether or not CLEAR makes life easier for people isn't the point
    (from a business standpoint). The point is that it's taking money away
    from them. Someone who pays $99/yr for CLEAR is less likely to pay
    $300/yr for their Elite service.

    Sure, their objections to CLEAR are bogus, but that's because they don't
    want to come out and state what is so clearly the case--that CLEAR has
    absolutely nothing to do with security. CLEAR doesn't improve security,
    it is simply there to reduce complaints about security procedures (which
    may or may not be providing any security). If those security procedures
    are in fact useful, then CLEAR in fact reduces security, but that's a
    separate argument.

    Fundamentally, CLEAR is an economic program put in place by the
    government. CLEAR competes with Continental's own programs by using
    an unfair advantage (the government has ruled that only it can provide
    certain benefits). It's not at all obvious why the government should be in
    the business of competing with the airlines on services--if I were cynical
    I might argue that they did it so that the people who have the clout to
    complain about bogus security measures now have less of a reason to
    complain. Your comment about feeling like a "rock star" is dead on.
    That's what CLEAR is about, not security.

    So is Continental making up reasons not to use CLEAR? Yes, because the
    real reasons would be twisted into appearing too capitalistic and anti-
    security. The latter in particular is something nobody dares do in the
    current political climate. Is Continental right that CLEAR has nothing to
    do with security and is in fact sucking revenue from the airlines?

    P.S. I can't say I'm terribly happy that the government can go make up a
    bunch of restrictions, and then charge me to bypass them. So enjoy your
    rock star status, but don't be surprised if I spit at you as you go by. :-)
    • Does not compute

      People don't usually pay for EliteAccess service. They get to EliteAccess status because they've bought an awful lot of plane tickets over the course of one year. All buying the Presidential Mastercard does is put you in the President's Club lounge program and add 20,000 miles to your point total, which effectively puts you in Silver Elite, the lowest on the Elite food chain. In order to maintain that status they have to continue to fly at that rate or higher. Points on Continental are accumulated by buying certain classes of tickets. The more expensive tickets -- such as full fare Y class and discounted full fare H class, accumulate 2 points per segment. At 60 points you are considered a Gold EliteAccess customer.At 90 points you become Platinum.

      The people who have Gold or Platinum EliteAccess have spent a LOT of money with Continental and will continue to spend a LOT of money. I don't see what the problem is with these high volume customers being able to get through security faster.
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    I think the problem with Newark is that nearly everyone would buy the CLEAR account, just as nearly everyone has EliteAccess going on to a Continental flight. As you can now buy EliteAccess by getting a certain kind of Continental credit card with a $395 annual fee (and President's Club access), there are a lot of people in that EliteAccess line. Some people even superimpose the EliteAccess logo on their boarding pass and get into that line without actually having the privilege!

    I'm not sure what the benefit really is to either EliteAccess or CLEAR -- just that CLEAR is a little cheaper if you don't already have EliteAccess. Either way, you can blame both TSA and Continental for their mentality as both entities seem to be in the business of annoying as many people as possible.
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    I hate the clearpass system. I am not fond of airlines treating frequent passengers better than occasional passengers, but I can understand it. The clear system is just a way to pay the government a bribe that would be illegal to give to the minimum wage guy at the security checkpoint, who probably actually needs the money.
    • ummmm...

      First of all, it's in the best interest of your company to treat those better who spend the most money at your company. Rule #1 of business customer service, don't inconvenience your best customers, lest they take their considerable cash and possibly their rich friends somewhere else and you get to go out of business. Rule #2 (at least until recently) try not to piss off ANY of your customers. The general malaise in corporate America makes it very hard for any employee to adhere to #2, but failing #1 will get you fired.

      It's a fact of life in Capitalism, if you don't like it, you probably can move to North Korea or another strict Communist country where you're sure to be treated "well" and "equally". It's part of the motivation of capitalism. If you're not willing to work hard for it, then barring the lottery or (as many executives seem to have) stupid luck, then you won't receive anything special.

      As for the last comment, I can't even begin to fathom that one. Let's play out a scenario based on letting the TSA agents be bribed, shall we?

      "Oh, Mr. <insert racially unprofiled (retch) name here> ... is that a bomb and a knife in your fanny pack?"

      "No sir... But here is $2000 dollars. I won't be needing it anymore anyways."

      "Oh, look! My shoelace is untied! You better move along while I take care of this..."
  • Clearly this is a Federal Jurisdictional Issue

    Like gas being reforumulated differently all over the
    nation, security is different (except for the uniforms are all
    TSA now) everywhere. Some take bags at the counter,
    some make you drag them to the TSA for scanning for

    The TSA and the Executive Branch need to make this a true
    Federal issue and simply tell ALL airports they will use
    Clear. Of course in the future Clear would be subject to
    contract competition. I really don't care much what some
    bureaucrat at the Port Authority thinks and I certainly
    could care less about Continental (they should stick to
    flying airplanes) and its opinion. This is what we pay taxes
    for: the federal government should handle things so they
    can be uniform across the nation.
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    Very Interesting article. While no one enjoys waiting to clear airports, there is one underlying rule in security. A terrorist only has to be successful one time. Given the large numbers of people who travel thru the airports and the larger numbers of people who will sign up for this service, TSA still has the role of ensuring security in the airports. I understand that if a person pays for premium service, he/she should reasonably expect to receive premium service...But this service is literally being crammed down the throats of TSA. TSA has to accept the risks of allowing such services. Imagine the public outrage of failure of such technology to prevent someone from succeeding in taking down an aircraft because they didn't have to have a laptop or clothing inspected.
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    This article expresses my feelings exactly! I'm platinum elite, live in NJ, and am a member of the presidents club. The only thing that the writer does not mention is that the security people don't seem to even check the people going on to the elite line to make sure they are truly elite!

    I don't agree with my next idea but it's an idea non the less. Why not have a Super Express line if you are elite AND a Presidents club member? This would seem to eliminate Continentals objection and might even increase their club membership.

    (I'd rather just have a clear lane!)
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    I'm afraid I understand Continental's point. While this service does allow people to jump long lines, it doesn't solve the larger issue. It does not get everyone through TSA faster.

    Think of it this way. If everyone signed up for CLEAR, then the current problems would still exist.

    Continental's requests to keep laptops in bags, and keep jackets and shoes on travelers would speed up the process itself, not just for certain people. Weighing safety as a factor, I understand TSA cannot do this.

    The most insightful thing here to me is that CLEAR is working on scanners for shoes on feet. This is a real step in improving the speed of TSA checks.

    So while I would sign up for Clear and be pleased to skip long lines, I realize that it would be a benefit to me alone, and only so long as few people sign up for the service.

    if they are successful, before long their line will be just as long as the others, and their $99 fee will simply be a tax to go through TSA at all.
  • RE: Continental is right, but you are wrong.

    I agree with your argument that from a business perspective CLEAR is not good for Continental.
    But the rest of what you had to say made no sense and only left me wondering if you wrote this to get a reaction out of people. Saying that you are going to spit on someone who uses CLEAR is just uncalled for.
    The government is not competing with airlines, they help airlines by providing security. And if they utilize technology to provide a expedited security then that's even better for the airlines.
    The airlines benefit in a number of ways:
    1. Passengers have a better traveling experience and therefore travel more.
    2. If passengers get through security screening faster then there will be less delays. (When a travelers bags are checked in and sitting in the cargo hold of the plane but the traveler is still in the security check line then this causes the flight to be delayed.)
    3. Collaborating with CLEAR by incorporating it into part of their current customer rewards systems would provide even more incentive to customers.

    Long live technology and may it make our lives easier.

    Conrad Chase
  • I wonder

    ...just how many terrorists we've caught at these checkpoints. Does anyone actually have any numbers? Is the government willing to cough them up?

    I suspect that the answer to most of those are: none. The media would be all over a catch like that, yet I have heard of only one. That one I heard of was when the guy was caught on the tarmack using an employee id, which makes it easier to avoid the checkpoints altogether anyways.

    This has, from the start, been a FUD and perception war. We are willing to be searched for a perceived security. They won the day we started imposing more rules on ourselves to "deter the bad guys". The next one won't be a commercial plane, it'll be a nuke from one of the "recently revealed to have possession of nuclear plans" enemies.

    So why do we bother with such a tiring and detracting practice when it hasn't done us much good?

    I would honestly like to see someone prove me wrong if only to prove that all that money and passenger time wasn't wasted and that it DOES do something for us.
  • RE: Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

    I don't want someone passing me in line and I don't care if they're paying more. If they had a dedicated line for the Clear subscribers I wouldn't mind so much. Today I flew Delta from Laguardia to Fort Lauderdale. I counted 4 TSA "workers" standing around picking their noses and scratching their behinds, doing nothing to check IDs and usher people to a scanner. Why? Because only 2 of the 4 lanes were open!

    Only fools really believe that the TSA is capable of making the skies safer. It's all done to create the illusion of safety for fools. That and to create a big make-work program.

    When Clear allows me to pass thru security without taking my shoes and jacket off and my portable out I'll subscribe.

    I couldn't agree more with Continental on this issue.

    I fly Delta mostly. If they pave the way for Clear as your article suggests, I may even stop using them, in protest.

    By the way, is this a covert ad for Clear, as well as a handy way for the airlines to guage public opinion on this issue? Are they both paying you?
    • Clear Lines and Delta

      "If they had a dedicated line for the Clear subscribers I wouldn't mind so much."

      That is in fact how the system works. They have their own "line".

      "I fly Delta mostly. If they pave the way for Clear as your article suggests, I may even stop using them, in protest. "

      They announced a large partnership agreement this morning.
      • Comes and goes

        In Orlando on a Monday morning, ONLY Clear Members gain access to that line within the checkpoint. There's no room for standard passengers.

        Once the rush clears (no pun intended), then it becomes a Shared Lane, with signs notifying passengers that they may have a Clear Member placed in line in front of everybody else.

        It's a neat system.
  • Clear is NOT the Government

    CLEAR RT and it's competitors, RT-Go, FLO, FlyFast, etc., are not operated by the U.S. Government. They are overseen by the TSA ONLY in the sense that TSA performs a threat-assessment on each potential member, to ensure no members show any history of being a security threat.

    Currently, the service does one thing and one thing only; move you to the front of the line. That's it. In Denver, it bypasses the hundreds of people standing in the First Class line. In Orlando, where no First Class line exists, it ensures that the thousands of members who use the program every week do not need to wait in the lines that, during the holiday period, can exceed 3 hours of wait time. In San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland members can plan to enter the airport having already printed boarding passes, with their lone carryon hanging on their shoulder, only 45 minutes before their flight departs and be at the gate before boarding procedures have begun. Every time.

    Sure, TSA gets a share of the enrollment cost. They screen every participant of the Registered Traveler network. But do they, or anybody else associated with the U.S. Government run the program? No way. It's all privately held companies, working to get their members through with the shortest wait and the best experience possible.
  • Shoe scanners are a bust

    I have never managed to use the shoe scanners at Orlando because they do not work if your shoes have any metal in them. Most shoes these days have at least a bit of metal, so these expensive machines are a waste of money for Clear in my opinion.

    I am also an EliteAccess member. And I feel the author's pain at not having Clear lines at Houston and Newark. I see Delta is the big partner mentioned in the article. I have an account with them also but have not flied enough with them to get Elite status. Perhaps I'll be more inclined to fly Delta now.