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Continental's TSA Airport Security is decidedly Un-CLEAR

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.
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Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Technology Editor on

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. 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.

Suffice 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 www.airlines.org/customerservice/security/.

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 continental.com.

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.

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