Can I Avoid Long Airport Security and Customs Lines?

For most of us, the airport security process hasn’t changed much for many years. Sure, procedures were tightened after 9/11, but the basic system remains the same: send your checked baggage to be x-rayed, line up at the security checkpoint, give your ID (the second of at least three times before you get on a plane) to an agent, take off your shoes, put your shoes and carry-on through another X-ray, go through a magnetometer, maybe undergo a pat-down, then wait some more for your flight. The main post-9/11 changes have been limited to what you can take in your carry-on and taking off your shoes.

Recently, however, governments, airports, and airlines have started working on ways to make the process more efficient. A reader asked:

“How can I get in on these new ‘fast track’ airport programs?”

The short answer is, “By signing up, going through an investigation process, paying, and using it at a few airports.” Here’s how the two main programs work.

Registered Traveler

This program is designed to speed the security screening process through domestic airports. Basically, it lets TSA screen you very carefully just once; if you pass, you can then bypass some of the security lines, but only at airports that have installed the necessary facilities.

Although the program is under the cognizance of TSA, it is actually implemented by private companies. You enroll online, providing your personal information. Then, you visit an enrollment center where your information is verified, you get fingerprinted, an iris scan, and a photograph. This information is encoded on an ID card and the information goes to the security corporation for background screening and for compilation into a master database.

Assuming you pass, you can use that card to bypass long security lines and instead verify your identity (by fingerprints and/or iris scan) at a security kiosk and then pass through a dedicated registered traveler line, which, presumably, is a much shorter than the regular line. You still have to go through the X-ray and magnetometer procedures; the advantage is strictly in the shorter line to get to those screenings.

Two companies are so far up and running, but more are reported as being interested. Verified Identity Pass was first out of the gate with its Clear card system. Next came FLO Corporation’s FLOcard. Clear currently costs $199 for one year, with multiyear discounts; FLO’s basic card costs $100 a year. Both companies have arranged a few reciprocal “discount” deals with a handful of other travel suppliers.

Although the two companies compete, they both provide access to the same kiosks and lines at participating airports. Currently, those airports are Albany, Atlanta, Boston (some terminals), Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Little Rock, Louisville, Newark (some terminals), New York/JFK (most terminals), New York/La Guardia (some terminals), Oakland, Orlando, Reno, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Jose, Washington/Dulles, Washington/Reagan National, and White Plains. Other airports will probably join the program later this year or next.

With yearly costs of at least $100 per year, and airports so far limited mostly to business destinations, this program obviously targets frequent traveler “road warriors” rather than once-a-year tourists. But frequent leisure travelers who can use one of the airports where the system is installed might give it a thought.

Global Entry (GOES)

Global Entry is a new pilot program managed by US Customs and Border Protection which expedites entry clearance into the US for pre-approved, low-risk travelers. Participants will enter the United States by utilizing automated kiosks located, at designated airports,” says the Global Online Entry System website. Currently Global Entry is available at Atlanta, Chicago/O’Hare, Houston/Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/JFK, and Washington/Dulles. The US is expected to add an additional 13 airports.

Obviously, Global Entry is not a preflight screening: Instead, it is designed to speed up the post-flight customs and immigration process for travelers inbound to the US from foreign countries. As with the preflight system, you initially enroll online, provide a laundry list of personal information (probably daunting to some), and pay the $100 fee for registration and five years of validity. Then, you go to an enrollment center for an interview, pictures, biometrics, and such. If approved, you get a “smart” ID card that you can use to bypass the usual (and usually long) customs and immigration lines. Enrollment is limited to US citizens, permanent legal residents, and citizens of a few other countries, age 18 or over, who have never been convicted of a crime in any country or violated customs rules.

Global Entry is also designed to work cooperatively with similar foreign systems. Currently, the only active complementary system is at Amsterdam, which requires separate registration and fees. As far as I can tell, you can’t combine the screening procedures for Global Entry and Registered Traveler—if you want in on both, you have to apply and go through each procedure separately.

At a cost of $20 a year, Global Entry could appeal both to frequent business travelers and even to leisure travelers who make several trips outside the US every year.

Privacy Concerns

For many, the main downside to both programs is the worry about loss of privacy inherent in the construction of a government database with so much personal information. Clearly, that’s a matter for each individual to decide. But if you like the idea of bypassing lines, give them a try.