S.J. frequent fliers signing up for fast-track passes

CARD HOLDERS CAN AVOID LONG LINES

By Michael Martinez
This detail image indicating how the Clear Registered Traveler program card works was copied from a large kiosk placed at Mineta San Jose International Airport which was placed outside the security gates to educate passengers about the new product and service.
Susanna Frohman/Mercury News
This detail image indicating how the Clear Registered Traveler program card works was copied from a large kiosk placed at Mineta San Jose International Airport which was placed outside the security gates to educate passengers about the new product and service.

What's it worth to a harried frequent flier to avoid those long airport security lines?

Apparently a lot, especially to anyone rushing to catch an early morning flight at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Since registration began in September for the new registered traveler ``Clear cards'' -- government-approved ID cards that allow pre-screened passengers to skip long security queues -- travelers have been signing up at a faster pace in San Jose than even at New York's JFK Terminal 7, which handles a heavy international and cross-country load.

``A lot of them are tech-savvy people who arguably warmed to this faster than they have at the other airports,'' said Steve Brill, founder and chief executive of Verified Identity Pass, the New York-based company that operates the Clear program to be used in San Jose.

In the first 2 1/2 months that fliers could register for the program, applications from San Jose were running ahead of the three other airports that began sign-ups at the same time: Indianapolis International, Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International and the JFK terminal that services United, America West, British Airways and Qantas, among others.

January opening

Through Friday, more than 1,500 applications have been received from travelers who identified San Jose as their primary airport. Brill said he hopes to open lanes to card holders sometime in the first two weeks of January, allowing for time to install equipment and train staff.

Business travelers and frequent fliers who submitted personal information -- including fingerprints and an iris scan -- to the Transportation Security Administration and agreed to pay the $99.95 annual fee are eager to begin using the lanes, which can cut wait times substantially at checkpoints.

``I hate lines. They're very stressful, especially if you're late for your plane,'' said Alex Friedland, a San Jose attorney who travels about 12 times a year. ``For 100 bucks, this is worth it for me.''

Moving to the front of a security line is the primary benefit to the Clear card, so named because the card itself, which contains a visible embedded gold chip, is mostly clear and travelers are ``cleared'' to use special security lanes. But so is the comfort of knowing you won't run the risk of missing your flight if you were delayed by traffic or had to feed the dog before leaving home.

``It's not the amount of time'' it takes to get through security, Brill said. ``It's the predictability of the process. It's knowing that it's not going to take you an hour.''

Lines at San Jose, although far from the worst at U.S. airports, can get bogged down at certain times. On some weekday mornings, waits at security checkpoints in Terminal A, where Southwest and American have most of the gates, can average 15 to 20 minutes or more, according to TSA statistics.

Late arrivals

Passengers who print their boarding passes at home and bring only carry-on bags won't have to worry about arriving at the airport an hour or more before a flight. ``If they're in our program,'' Brill said, ``they can get there a half-hour before.''

But not everyone has jumped on board.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the airline industry, has opposed the program since its inception, arguing that it provides no security benefit. James May, the association's president, earlier this year sent a letter to directors at 150 U.S. airports asking them to oppose it.

``The TSA would have to tell us that these people who sign up for the program get a benefit beyond going to the front of the line, but that's not true,'' ATA spokesman David Castelveter said. ``They go through the security screening machine just like you and I do.''

But new technology being tested in Orlando will allow TSA screeners to process more travelers in less time and speed up lanes for everyone, Brill said. The equipment, which scans passengers' shoes for trace explosive material -- without having to remove them -- could be available soon to Clear users. It's awaiting TSA approval.

Once Clear lanes begin operating in San Jose, Brill expects applications to soar. ``I'm guessing that we'll have 2,000 to 3,000 by the time it opens, more than we had in Orlando,'' he said. ``A month after we're open, my guess is we'll have 5,000 people in the program'' at San Jose.

Orlando, which began a registered-traveler program in July 2005, has more than 30,000 Clear members and a 94 percent annual renewal rate. About 20 airports, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago O'Hare, have expressed interest in starting programs, although officials at San Francisco and Oakland airports appear hesitant.

``This can only be evaluated once we see how many airports participate, where they are located and the success operationally of the program,'' said Steve Grossman, Oakland's director of aviation.

Not in San Francisco

But don't look for San Francisco International to participate.

``We just don't feel it's worth the expense of reconfiguring our checkpoints,'' said airport spokesman Mike McCarron, who noted that waits there average five to seven minutes.

In San Jose, Clear members will be able to use designated security lanes, although those can be used by other passengers when not in use by Clear card travelers. Once shoe scanners become operational, passengers will receive receipts showing they have been cleared and can avoid removing their shoes -- although they will still have to take out their laptops.

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