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What Went Wrong with CLEAR (& When Will It Get Better)?

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In dozens of airports across the country, the same scenario plays out repeatedly every day: Two travelers make their way through airport security at the same time. Both travelers have TSA PreCheck on their boarding pass, but one of them heads for the designated (and far pricier) CLEAR® Plus lane. 

And yet somehow, the traveler with TSA PreCheck alone wins. Easily.

That's become the story of using CLEAR Plus lanes at airports nationwide. Once a darling of the travel world that promised to cut you to the front of the line and get you through airport security in minutes, CLEAR's track record is shaky at best as it's expanded rapidly to more airports … and increased in price, too.

Whether you get through security in minutes or watch as the TSA PreCheck line passes you by has started to feel like a coin flip – unacceptable odds for a service that costs a whopping $189 a year. It's notoriously bad in airports like Atlanta (ATL) and Denver (DEN), where bloated rolls of flyers with Delta or United status get discounts on CLEAR Plus or have top-dollar Amex travel cards in their wallet that cover the cost of enrollment altogether. 

And the hits keep coming. The service was designed to speed up security by replacing manual ID checks at TSA queues with fingerprint and iris scan verification, yet CLEAR members have been increasingly subjected to random ID checks over the last year. And while a big upgrade to facial recognition technology will supposedly speed things up, that hasn't happened yet … in fact, the looming changeover has arguably made things worse.

The company's CEO, Caryn Seidman-Becker, admitted it herself earlier this year, telling investors: “In 2023, we did not consistently deliver the in-lane experience that our members have come to expect.”

There are still countless CLEAR success stories … but it has become incredibly hit or miss, with wait times that vary wildly based on what airport you're flying out of and when you're traveling. And even that begs the question: How did we get here? And as travel demand shows virtually no signs of stopping, how – and how soon – will CLEAR improve?

 

Lines Fueled By Amex & Airlines

CLEAR's core problem is simple: At many airports, more CLEAR® Plus members try to use the service than employees can handle. And you need only look past security checkpoints and into overcrowded airport lounges to see part of the reason why. 

Lines regularly spill outside the doors of Delta Sky Clubs and Amex Centurion Lounges across the country as record numbers of travelers added pricey premium travel credit cards like *amex platinum* to their wallets to get in the door. The same thing has happened with CLEAR.

From that same Amex Platinum Card to *biz platinum* and a recent addition to Hilton's top-tier Aspire Card, Amex has added statement credits to more and more travel cards that cover the entire, $189-a-year cost of CLEAR enrollment. As cardholders have signed up for CLEAR in droves – might as well if it's “free,” right? – it has added fuel to the fire, overwhelming the company's capacity to keep queues moving smoothly. 

It started in the summer of 2021, when the Amex Platinum Card bumped its annual fee up to $695 (see rates & fees) while adding a ton of new perks … including the first-ever credit to cover the cost of a CLEAR membership: Just charge the now-$189 yearly fee to your Platinum Card and it kicks in to erase the charge altogether. 

CLEAR didn't begin disclosing its ranks of paying CLEAR Plus members until recently. But the company said in recent financial filings that it had roughly 4.4 million active CLEAR Plus members as of the summer of 2022. Less than two years later, that had swelled to nearly 6.8 million as of late March 2024. 

The company did not directly respond to a question from Thrifty Traveler about what percentage of their paying members are using Amex cards that cover the cost of the program. And the company insists its partnership with Amex isn't the major force driving those numbers up and up: Advertising and kiosks to register right at the airport are – and always have been – the largest source of sign-ups.

Airline partnerships add to the tally, too. 

CLEAR has formed lucrative partnerships with some of the nation's biggest airlines to bring their flyers into the fold – including financial stakes from both Delta and United Airlines. Free members of either airline's mileage program get a small discount, while travelers with status or a co-branded credit card in their wallet can shave $40 off the annual fee. And the top-tier Delta Diamond Medallions and United 1K flyers get a CLEAR Plus membership for free as a perk.

More recently, CLEAR has also paired up with both Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines for similar offerings. 

But it's undeniable that more travelers are picking up the cards that can get them CLEAR Plus for free. Thanks to eye-popping welcome bonuses of up to 175,000 points and an ever-increasing portfolio of travel perks, American Express has repeatedly told investors they're acquiring record numbers of new cardholders for premium products like the Platinum Card – especially among younger Millennials and Gen Zers. 

“This quarter, we acquired 3.2 million new cards, with acquisitions of U.S. consumer Platinum card numbers again reaching a record high and increasing 20%, above last quarter’s record levels, demonstrating the great demand we’re seeing,” CEO Steve Squeri said back in the summer of 2022. 

 

amex platinum card

 

That trend will continue. In March, CLEAR re-signed another one-year extension of its relationship with American Express.

“I think that they continue to do a great job growing their card member base, and we get our fair share of that.” CLEAR President Ken Cornick said of American Express during a recent quarterly earnings call.

In a letter to shareholders looking back at 2023, CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker signaled that the company might have gone too far chasing after new members … at the expense of a smooth and consistent experience at the airport for their current subscribers. 

“CLEAR’s 2023 financial performance and network expansion were strong but the CLEAR Plus member experience was not consistently up to our standards,” she wrote.

 

Signing Up in Line & ID Checks Slow Things Down

On paper, CLEAR has dedicated kiosks just inside the airport entry doors at many airports – a place where newbies can get signed up and travelers who registered online can finalize their enrollment with a photo and biometrics without bogging down the trip through security.

But in my experience – and I'm not alone here – those enrollment stations are rarely staffed. So through the main CLEAR security queue they go instead, slowing down lines for everyone as new users go through the four- to five-minute process of wrapping up their registration with a CLEAR representative.

That's what I was forced to do when I first signed up for CLEAR years ago, and that's what many travelers have to do today. As the ranks of travelers with CLEAR® Plus continue growing, it's a persistent problem.

 

clear tweet about atlanta

 

CLEAR acknowledges that it's an issue, and one they've tried to solve over the years … with little to show for it. Despite their best efforts at getting new CLEAR applicants to wrap up their enrollment elsewhere, they still head straight for the CLEAR-branded security lanes regardless. 

Luckily, CLEAR's partnership with the federal government to enroll travelers in TSA PreCheck won't exacerbate the issue. The company has confirmed that all TSA PreCheck enrollments – at 20-plus airports and counting – will take place away from the actually security queues. 

The TSA threw another wrench in CLEAR's works last year, though.

The entire purpose of CLEAR is to cut you to the front of the TSA line, using biometrics to verify your identity and replace the need for a manual ID check by a TSA agent. But starting last summer, the company began ramping up random ID checks on travelers in the CLEAR lane at the federal government's behest. And paying members were justifiably angered when the TSA announced that it would eventually require everyone to present an ID – even after having their fingerprints scanned in the $189-a-year CLEAR lane. 

Fortunately, the TSA backed away from its previous call for universal ID checks for all CLEAR® Plus members, the Washington Post reported last summer. Yet random ID checks are still par for the course – and seemingly far more frequent than just a few years ago. In Reddit threads, among our Thrifty Traveler Premium Facebook groups, and even from yours truly, it’s been a 50-50 chance of whether you can go through CLEAR checkpoints freely or get stopped for a secondary ID check.

 

‘NextGen' Facial Recognition is Making it Worse … For Now 

To hear CLEAR say it, what they're working on will change everything.

There's a a new identity verification system on the backend, tied directly back to state and federal databases. More importantly for consumers, that will allow the company to install fancier and faster technology in CLEAR lanes, which will “eliminate the need for members to stop at a CLEAR pod” and “keep you moving through the CLEAR lane where you don't break your stride.” 

That hasn't happened yet. But CLEAR promises its NextGen Identity+ and so-called “Lane of the Future” will launch at U.S. airports soon – later this year, the company says. 

First things first: The company needed more information on CLEAR users to build up that new NextGen Identity+ verification system, which is why it sent an email out to all its members late last year. That process required another round of photos, another ID check, and additional personal details for each and every member. Yet again, that slowed things down in the security line: CLEAR ambassadors have to spend a few minutes upgrading each customer’s credentials rather than sending them through as normal

 

CLEAR NextGen

 

At last count, the company had finished that process for roughly 90% of active CLEAR Plus members. 

“CLEAR is obsessed with the customer experience, which is why we upgraded millions of Members to NextGen Identity+,” a spokesperson said in a statement. 

But exactly when truly touchless technology will replace the longtime “step up and scan your fingers or eyes” CLEAR kiosks is a moving target. The company says it's still on track to launch the new CLEAR lanes sometime this year, but it's staying tight-lipped about exactly when that might happen, what it might look like, or how fast it will roll out to its nearly 60 U.S. airports. 

With a more automated process of identity verification, it could free up CLEAR ambassadors to handle the more time-consuming enrollments and other tasks. And in addition to being faster for paying members, it could also reduce the need for at least some of those pesky random ID checks – CLEAR is transmitting that data on each customer, anyway. 

“In the future state … all members credentials will be transmitted to the TSA hardware. So there will be no need to show a physical ID,” Seidman-Becker, CLEAR's CEO, told investors late last year.  

That's the goal, anyway. Whether CLEAR can make that a reality anytime soon – and if the TSA can expand its latest technology fast enough to accommodate it – is the $189 question travelers with CLEAR® Plus are surely asking themselves. 

 

Bottom Line

CLEAR has been controversial for years, but the guessing game for travelers as to whether it will be a major time saver or a time suck has many CLEAR members at a breaking point. 

While many flyers are no doubt happy as they waltz through security in minutes, paying nearly $200 a year for an unpredictable experience is a tough sell. CLEAR has big plans to make things better on tap for later this year. Only time will till when – and if – they make a real difference in the airport experience.

 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

20 Responses

  • Yesterday at Terminal 4 in JFK, all Clear passengers had to do their eyes or fingerprints at the Clear kiosk and then wait in line as a SINGLE agent received each person’s name and photo on her phone. She then took each person up individually to a TSA agent, although the TSA didn’t give her priority and often made her wait. Then, each person had to have their photo taken by TSA. It was pointless. Just go through the regular line or Pre-Check.

    • It really is getting to that point where Clear Plus is being delayed at some point of the screening. Depending on the length of the regular TSA Precheck, it might be easier to use that instead of Clear. I am now providing my ID and boarding pass to TSA as a new step before even being asked. I think the TSA screeners appreciate that and whisk me through quickly.

    • I get it through Amex since it started. Newark has been hit or miss for me the past year. Orlando similar. JFK nevermind that if you go to the regular Clear you have to walk to the opposite end for the TSA Pre/Clear… I’ve split with my wife for fun and she’s beat me through TSA a few times.
      With TSA Pre you get in line, show ID and Boarding pass directly to the TSA agent and you’re off.
      With Clear, you get in line, wait for the clear ambassador to escort others to the TSA agent, when it’s your turn, scan eyes (may or may not work quickly depending on distance), scan boarding pass (may or may not work quickly depending on reader and phone brightness, phone orientation, etc), wait another few seconds if the ambassador was doing or dealing with something else, show the boarding pass to another ambassador, and finally walk over through traffic to the TSA agent that sometimes makes the ambassador wait depending on the messy lines. So many more steps and things that can go wrong and inevitably take longer.

  • CLEAR is consistently slower than regular pre-check at DEN, EWR, ORD, and most other airports I visit. The random ID checks make it truly pointless.

    If you’re getting it “free” with your AMEX, it’s nice to have the option, but if you’re considering ponying up cash for it, don’t waste your money.

    • Everything is bad at Denver. Denver is the worst airport in the country, followed only by Orlando. Regular, Pre-Check, and Clear. Everything is bad at those two airports. Denver at least has a first-class lane that is somewhat hidden. It’s by far the quickest.

      • Denver Airport is terrible; trains are overcrowded and people become rude under those circumstances. The other passengers don’t give passengers with strollers, walkers, wheelchairs space or priority. The train wait areas are not marked so that orderly lines could be used to control crowds getting on and off trains. On a recent flight I waited for two trains to fill up and even though I was among the first to arrive, I could not enter the train. A pilot helped me and a young woman get onto the second train only by bodily blocking more aggressive (unsafe) passengers. He said he could not wait to leave this Denver airport. The escalators you must use to exit the trains often cannot hold the capacity of passengers, nor can the open areas nearby. Yet, often not all trains are even running. Denver pre-check is consistently faster than Clear. TSA processes CLEAR passengers through a line used by virtually all wheelchair passengers, who have priority (as they should). This makes it impossible for CLEAR to have a time advantage. My travel companion recently was told by TSA in Denver that she had to go through the TSA pre-check line because it was on her boarding pass, even though the regular non-precheck line was much shorter.

        • I thought Clear was fine before they opened the new West security checkpoint at DEN in February of this year. What I liked best about the old setup is that you could see how long the the Clear and pre-check lines were and make an informed decision about which one to take (usually Clear). Now you can’t tell how the long the lines are. The last few times we have flown, pre-check has been the winner, so we’ll probably skip Clear when we fly next week.

  • We were at LAX last month. Our family have pre-tsa + clear. The Clear line had no one (I went here). Pre-tsa line has a couple of people (My wife and kid here). Guess who went through the security line first? Not me. We’re done with Clear.

  • On Saturday, Terminal 4 @ JFK, Clear (with PreCheck) had ONE SINGLE agent and the rest of PreCheck (non-clear) had 3-4 agents. HOWEVER, the one single Agent for Clear was only allowed to do ONE Clear Customer and then ONE non-clear customer even when we had been waiting for 20 minutes but non-clear customers had just walked up.

    I asked if Clear customers were being slowed down on purpose and the agent said no. It was just that clear only pays for a certain number of people to go through the line and they were reaching that capacity. Not sure if that is true but that is what he said.

  • I stopped using CLEAR at BNA after the 5th time I saw Pre-Check folks getting through faster. I am not renewing my membership this year

  • As members since the introduction of the first Clear program (which went bankrupt), we are huge fans, having signed up my entire family including three adult children from around the country. Lately the process has slowed and more and more we see staffers hanging around instead of serving customers which may be in line. We will continue to ride out the storm with them until they are able to introduce the new equipment/processes in hopes that they employ facial recognition sooner than later. Bottom line is that we are loyal customers who have experience disappointing delay in our recent travel (we fly multiple times per month).

  • I’m not renewing. .. sure, it is ‘free’ for me, but we have to pay for the spouse, and it’s not even worth that. The last two trips, we bailed out of the CLEAR line and made it throgh Pre before the people who we left in line. And in Boston, at least a few months ago, no CLEAR at all. It’s not even worth free.

  • Used CLEAR at Dulles Airport two times in the last year and both times it was NO advantage at all. Will not be renewing.

  • The lack of urgency and the snail pace of the ambassadors processing travelers through the line is frustrating. Irregardless of the line of the queue, their pace doesn’t seem to change. The essence of boredom and dissatisfaction with their job is evident.

  • The issue isn’t that the Clear process in itself is slow.
    It’s that
    1) The line is often after the TSA agent, so all things being perfect you skip a tiny line, to be at the end of a much longer line.
    2) TSA agents now rarely let one person from Clear enter alternatively, it’s routine that they let groups of people in other TSA lines in, while accepting one person from Clear.
    It’s now ALWAYS faster to use other lanes.
    There is no guarantee Clear will be remotely fast
    The entire thing is pointless until they fix the right problems

  • I am a former employee of clear and the overall continual system is terrible and it’s nothing that the actual TSA can’t do that you’ll pay half of what you get with clear

  • I’ve given up on Clear. It has NEVER recognized my finger prints or iris scans. And at LAS, my home airport, there is no reason to use it unless the Pre-check line is long at whatever airport you are at since Clear walks you to the front of that same line.

  • Thanks for this article. I’ve gotten several ‘free’ 3-month Clear passes over the years, but didn’t travel in those months and never went through the process of completing the in-airport signup.

    Now I’ll pass on any future offer, including the one I just received from Clear.

    Who’d pay good money for a slower, more frustrating option? Honestly though, travel is about over in the US constant surveillance state, hence why I only have one last flight to book out of the US… permanently.

  • It’s not worth it. My home airport of MLB/MCO, it was faster only ONCE, on a busy weekday morning. At multiple airports over the last two years, it’s been slower or breakeven. I was running late on a flight out of EWR, and the CLEAR line just barely got me through for the sprint to the gate, and I’d have been better off with the PC line. At IAH, FLL, LAX, JFK, LGA, and ORD, it’s a joke. On top of that, the fee went UP and having the Amex credit and Delta SkyMiles & cobranded cardholder discount still results in a net cost. Already canceled.

    Stick with Global Entry/TSA PC; the RARE instance in which the government far outperforms private companies.

  • In my experience it is much worse than 50/50 literally every time I go through I wait while TSA lets tons of people go first while I wait and watch and wonder why I’m paying for this service, it’s awful

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