Two hundred bucks to get through airport security in the fast lane? That is the hefty price tag on Clear Card, a new express airport security card offered by Verified Identity Pass.

Here’s how it works: The Clear Card program is offered by a private company, but overseen by the US Government’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the same agency that screens passengers in the airports. In effect, the card allows you to clear security before you fly. U.S. citizens or permanent residents may apply for the card provided they have the appropriate government-issued documents and identification.

Applicants must then appear in person at a Clear Card enrollment center AND have their “biometric information” –photograph, fingerprints and iris image – recorded, encrypted and stored on the card.
Voila, you are a Clear Member! You now have access to a designated Clear security lane at participating airports (currently, just over 20 nationwide, including some of the biggies such as Atlanta Hartsfield and San Francisco–although not all gates at all airports). Of course … you still get the same metal detector and x-ray screening. The difference is you don’t have to wait in the same line as everyone else.


Is it Safe?
Is this kind of "express security" safe in a post- 9/11 world? The Clear Program began in 2003 as a way for travelers who don’t pose a security risk to voluntarily pre-screen themselves. But, if you can get preferential security treatment, then so can anyone with the right documents – forged or not. So any ne’er-do-well who can pass the screening process can get a Clear Card. What about bait and switch? Well, Verified Identity Pass, Inc. claims the Clear cards are not transferrable. Someone posing as the Clear Member would not match the photo, fingerprint and iris scans stored on the card, and that person would not be allowed through security.

Perhaps more worrisome is that at least some of the information is stored on that one little easy-to-lose card.  Even though all of the information on the card is encrypted, and only card readers authorized by Clear can decrypt and access the biometric and biographic information on the card, it does make you wonder. 

And consider this: do you really want all of your personal information and high-definition scans of your iris and fingerprints stored on a commercial database somewhere? In these days of sophisticated – and blundering – digital theft and fraud, I would weigh the pros and cons pretty carefully before I signed up.

Is it Worth $200?
But is it worth it?  Well, I recently cleared security at four major airports with my family, and to be honest with you, the wait wasn’t bad. Each line took about 10 minutes for all of us to go through and re-convene on the other side (and quite a bit of that time was taken up by my eldest daughter taking off and putting on her fashionable, knee-high, lace-up, fringed moccasin boots).

Granted, the economic slump has left airports pretty empty these days, and wait times at the security checkpoints aren’t what they were in the frightening days after 9/11.  So, for four of us, that would be $800 total for 10 minutes of inconvenience. Children under 11 can sail through security on their parent’s card. For those us with older kids, there’s a family discount. But even at the family of four rate of $589, that’s still a bundle.  I can think of a lot of other ways to spend that money on a vacation. And do I want my kids’ fingerprints, iris scan and other personal information in the hands of a private company? Even less than I want my own.

So, what about the business traveler?  Perhaps if you travel frequently for business, and you fly through the airports that accept Clear Card, and your regular carrier uses gates served by Clear Card and you tend to travel on busy routes at rush hour … then it might pay off. The Clear Card promises fewer missed flights and a more “predictable” airport experience. Say you travel once a month, the cost works out to about $16.50 per month – less than I spend on cups of coffee. In that case, the convenience is probably worth the expense. And if the economy picks up and your company brings back the expense account, it might really be worth it.

Does it Work?
Really, you are buying convenience – and a little luxury too. Clear promises the designated security lane will be “staffed by professional, courteous Clear attendants” and they will offer Clear members “extraordinary customer service.” Members will also get help to “place personal items in the bins, and to help them gather their belongings after going through the checkpoint.” This alone speeds up members’ trips through security “by as much as 30 percent, " the company promises. Although this makes the American people sound like a bunch of kindergartners putting on their snowsuits before recess, I do have to admit that the moccasins really slowed things down for us.  But wait – Clear expects to “unveil shoe-scanning technology” approved by TSA, so you won’t have to take off your footwear!  At last, help for the fashionista traveling mom.

And does the Clear Card really work? Do you go through security faster? I wish I could tell you, but I didn’t actually notice anyone go through the Clear Card express lane. Maybe they were going so fast I couldn’t see them.