(CNN) — Boarding a flight to Miami out of JFK Terminal 2 in New York City earlier this year, I knew I had pushed it a bit too far.
When I hopped out of the car and cleared the sliding doors, the alert came through on my phone: Flight is boarding. Thankfully, because I travel for a living, I have priority status plus TSA PreCheck, so I figured, "no problem."
Boy, was I wrong. The TSA PreCheck line was at least 30 people deep, and there was a feeling of mass hysteria in the crowded security area.
"My flight is boarding!" "We're all going to miss our flights!" "I'm going to a wedding!" "I'm going to a funeral!" "My grandmother is in the hospital!" The standard security line was about as long, maybe even a few people shorter, but I wasn't wearing socks and I hadn't baggied my 3-ounce liquids. The same issue applied to the priority lane.
Enter Clear, the expedited screening service that whisks its members to the front of the security line. Clear members who also have TSA PreCheck, as I do, get the added value of not having to follow the rules of the standard security line: laptops and liquids out, shoes off.
Just place your fore- and middle fingers on the pad (and don't forget your hand sanitizer) and a Clear representative will announce you to the agent. You flash your boarding pass, and before you know it, you've placed your carry-on luggage on the conveyor belt and are on your way to the gate (where yet another desperate cattle call of anxious and sometimes obnoxious fellow passengers awaits).
I got Clear (not Scientologically speaking) a few years ago. I have used the service 54 times at 10 different airports. I can't calculate the amount of time it's saved me, but it's a lot, and the stress reduction is also very valuable.
The sign-up is easy. It can be done in less than 20 minutes, assuming you're OK with handing over your biometric identity to a corporation. You can enroll upon arrival at participating airports; you'll find uniformed Clear representatives standing near a block of kiosks adjacent to the security line.
They'll check your ID, scan your eyes and fingertips, take a picture of your face, and ask you a few questions to confirm you are who you say you are. My enrollment was as seamless a process as I've experienced in an airport.
Clear launched in 2010, when former hedge fund managers Caryn Seidman Becker and Ken Cornick acquired Clear out of bankruptcy from the restructuring desk at Morgan Stanley. A previous iteration of the company, FlyClear, shut down in 2009 after four years in business.
As of July 2019, there are 3.8 million Clear members who can whiz through security at more than 60 locations, including airports, stadiums and other venues (full list of airports below).
United Airlines announced in late July that it has added Clear to its loyalty program, MileagePlus, offering free or discounted membership for US-based members.
United it so gung-ho on the future of Clear that the airline is investing to help grow the company, including adding Clear to its hubs in Newark and Houston and supporting getting Clear lanes at Chicago O'Hare sometime this fall.
Clear also partners with Hertz Fast Lane, the rental car company's own expedited service.
When asked if the company has plans for expansion outside of the US, Clear spokesman Adam Grossberg said, "We are interested in expanding internationally, but have no news to report at this time."
Cost of entry
The cost of Clear (which has moved into stadiums too) is $180 per year, and while that may seem a bit steep, for frequent fliers it's a worthy investment given the time saved. Of course, travelers will want to make sure Clear is at their home airport (and frequently used terminal) before plunking down the cash.
It's worth noting there are always plenty of offers and free trials, so if you keep an eye out, you may be able to give it a go with no payment at all.
Clear is offered as a Delta Medallion perk (frequent Delta Air Lines travelers earn different tiers of status).
Whether or not you join Clear, it is clear that money talks in the flying game. You pay for priority status, upgrades, club entrance fees, to check, and in some cases, to carry on a bag.
TSA PreCheck's accessible price point -- $85 for five years -- has likely added to its popularity (and subsequent long lines), and Global Entry, which allows you to skip the passport line in the US is $100 (which is also good for five years and includes TSA PreCheck).
There's also the Mobile Passport Control app (finally, something is free!), that American and Canadian passengers arriving in the US should download just in case the Global Entry kiosks are backed up.
It feels, quite rightly, that seamless air travel is only available to those willing and able to pay for it.
With all these decisions to make around how much to spend, how much your time and sanity are worth to you, whether or not to fight with the gate agent over a delayed flight or a bungled reservation, it is nice to know that there is still something no amount of money, status, points or influence can ever buy: Clear skies ahead.
Airports where Clear is located:
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
- Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport
- Boston Logan International Airport
- Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport
- Cleveland Hopkins International Airport
- Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
- Dallas Love Field Airport
- Denver International Airport
- Detroit Metro Airport
- Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport
- William P. Hobby Airport
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport
- McCarran International Airport
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Miami International Airport
- Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport
- Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport
- LaGuardia Airport
- John F. Kennedy International Airport
- Westchester County Airport
- Orlando International Airport
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
- Salt Lake City International Airport
- San Antonio International Airport
- San Francisco International Airport
- Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
- Dulles International Airport
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
A previous version of this story implied that Clear only helps passengers get to the front of the TSA PreCheck line. The expedited service works with both standard and TSA PreCheck lines.