Wednesday, June 24, 2009

CLEAR-ly Opaque

CLEAR, the largest U.S. registered traveler program, failed yesterday when it couldn't reach an agreement with its largest creditor to continue operations. I suspect the program - and two microscopic-sized, rival RT programs still in existance - won't be missed, as most travelers didn't use it and few had heard of it.

Directly affected, however, are the several tens of thousands of people who ponied up $199 a year to go to the head of the security screening lines at about 20 U.S. airports. They got there by flashing a biometric CLEAR card embedded with personal information, such as their Social Security number. CLEAR's owner, Verified Identity Pass, Inc., said none of those people will get their money refunded, as VIP is broke.

It's a bleak end for the latest brainchild of entrepreneur Steven Brill, the major domo of Court TV, American Lawyer magazine and other ventures. Brill recognized an opportunity after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for a program that could help speed selected air travelers through stepped-up airport security. But CLEAR's future was always opaque, thanks in part to government dithering. It took untill 2005 to get federal approval for CLEAR to take off, and it never did gather much momentum.

The mandate for RT programs changed under the new Department of Homeland Security from security-minded measures to airport concierge services for affluent travelers. Basically, the $199 a year gave customers a pass to the front of the line, where CLEAR employees helped them load and retrieve the little plastic bins for personal belongings. And that was it. CLEAR customers still had to go through the same Transportation Security Administration screening lines the rest of us do. This was a distinction without (much) of a difference.

The only difference most travelers will notice now is slightly longer security lines at some airports, especially at times favored by business travelers, who held the majority of CLEAR memberships. So on the West Coast, for example, those early-morning flights at 6 and 7 a.m. to the East Coast might be even more gnarly than usual. But there should be no major changes anywhere in the country.

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