Elite travellers can skip the security line at airports in the US - for a price

Passengers queue up outside a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, on May 27, 2016.
Passengers queue up outside a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, on May 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - The next time you're stuck in a long security line, consider this: At most United States airports it's possible to buy your way out of the wait.

All major domestic airlines and some smaller carriers offer programmes that allow people to skirt lines leading to the taxpayer-funded Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints even if they do not qualify for the government's expedited security program.

But for a price.

While that arrangement seems fine to people within the airline and travel industry - and is lauded by people who use it - critics say that it unfairly allows businesses to profit by taking advantage of a critical government function.

"Buying your way to the front of the line - that has nothing to do with the level of security," former US Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who filed legislation in 2012 to prohibit the practice, said in an interview. "Why should you have other folks stand in longer lines for a federal government program, the TSA?"

The arrangement is made possible because the TSA does not control the airport real estate leading to its metal detectors and x-ray machines. That means airports and airlines have control of the lines and can queue up passengers any way they want. At scores of airports there are separate lines for privileged passengers.

After thousands of passengers missed flights this spring due to long lines and officials forecast that this summer could be even worse - a symptom of increasing passengers and the declining number of TSA screeners - the practice of allowing some people to sidestep the lines is receiving new attention.

Elite travelers are increasingly seeking ways around the lines, while some critics are crying foul.

All four major airlines and most smaller carriers offer their top customers - those flying first class or the highest- tier frequent fliers - access to the head of the line to be screened. The privilege can also be purchased by anyone at some carriers. American Airlines' Five Star Service starts at US$250 a flight and includes a personal escort and other benefits. Another company, Clear, offers shorter lines to members who pay a yearly fee.

"I don't think it's really fair," Mr Steven Niessner, 55, a Golden, Colorado, resident, said while waiting to catch a flight at Washington's Reagan National Airport. "It smacks of the privileged getting better handling by paying more money."

The practice takes unfair advantage of the government's need to line up passengers to check them for weapons and bombs, said Mr Randolph Cohen, a lecturer at Harvard Business School. "The airlines should not get to control access to TSA anymore than car companies should control who gets in a short line at the DMV," he said.

"Speed through security with exclusive expedited security lines at select airports," Delta Air Lines says about its Sky Priority programme on a company website. The service is available at more than 80 airports to customers at the highest levels of its rewards program and to those buying first-class or business-class tickets, according to the website.

The other three major US carriers - Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Continental Holdings - all have similar programs, according to their websites. JetBlue Airways Corp. advertises speedier screening lanes for as little as US$10 above the regular ticket price.

Clear, a subscription service for US$179 per year, offers to escort passengers to the front of the line after using its computer portals to scan their documents. Delta and Clear entered into a partnership in April that will allow some of the airline's passengers access to the program for free or a reduced fee, according to a press release.

"Being a Clear member means you can breeze right past the long lines and go straight to screening," Clear's website says. Clear has agreements at 13 airports and is expected to expand to one more, Seattle, according to the company.

The programmes are part of a broader effort by airlines and airports to pamper celebrities and the wealthiest passengers. American Airlines has a separate entry at Los Angeles International Airport for elite customers. Not only do they get expedited check-in without fending off paparazzi, but they enter the TSA screening area through a private hallway.

The airport is also constructing a separate entry lounge for glitterati willing to pay as much as US$1,800 per trip, the Los Angeles Times reported.

While these programmes often use words like "expedited security", none of them alter how the TSA conducts screening, according to the agency. People entering through shorter lines get the same level of scrutiny. All such arrangements are also subject to TSA airport security reviews, according to the agency.

Sidestepping the lines also has nothing to do with TSA's programme to speed security for people deemed to be of low risk, called PreCheck. People who qualify for PreCheck after undergoing a background check and paying an US$85 fee have special lines that move faster because they do not have to take off shoes or remove laptops and liquids from their bags.

An airline's streamlined queue saved Mr Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition advocacy group, from missing a flight a few years ago at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

After a meeting with United officials ran long, an airline manager at the airport escorted him to a special portal for its top customers, Mr Mitchell said in an interview.

"It wasn't part of the concourse or the gate," Mr Mitchell said. "It was in a separate part of the building just to whisk VIPs through the security line."

Large hubs like O'Hare occasionally have special rooms and hallways through which customers can bypass lines, but there are no screening facilities devoted solely for VIPs or first-class passengers, according to airlines and the TSA.

Mr Mitchell said he supports airline efforts to grant special privileges in screening lines. "If you're a movie star from Hollywood, there's no way you're going to the airport three hours in advance," he said.

Mr Matthew Welty, a former Facebook software developer who is now a consultant, marvelled at a recent flight on Delta from San Francisco to Los Angeles after the airline gave his group of travelers access to an expedited screening line and other shortcuts.

"We got to skip the whole terminal experience that day," he said. "It was pretty unparalleled service."

Elite Travel Demand for such programmes has soared in recent months with news reports of congested screening portals, according to Mr Paul Tumpowsky, the chief executive of Skylark Travel Group, a New York company that books luxury flight packages.

"We've seen a lot of people who are effectively asking us how they can get rushed through security," Mr Tumpowsky said in an interview.

Ms Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International, recommends such services to her high-end corporate and entertainment-industry clients. "I don't think many people know about it," Ms Small said.

Clear spokesman Brian Ek declined to comment.

Steering the most valued passengers to shorter lines is no different from other perks, such as private lounges, Mr Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the Washington trade group Airlines for America, said in an e-mail.

"The concept of a business or venue allowing its best or most frequent customers easier or expedited access to entry is not unique to airlines," he said. Premier customers, who tend to fly more, "pay the most in security fees".

Airline customers pay a flat fee of US$5.60 per one-way flight, or as much as US$11.20 per round trip, on all tickets. Proceeds totalled US$6.6 billion last year, according to TSA's website.

On a recent Friday afternoon at National Airport, about 100 people stood in the regular screening lane for Terminal B while a handful of passengers trickled into a premier entryway that bypassed the main line.

At times, there were as few as five passengers waiting in the shorter line, allowing for a markedly faster trip through security.

Ms Shellie Ziegler, 43, who was waiting to catch a flight home to Indiana, said she did not object to people taking advantage of the speedier lines.

While it might mean a longer wait for her, she said she was resigned to the practice and would probably use it if she could afford to.

"It's all about who has the money."