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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Security Expert Shows You How To Get Through Airport Lines Faster

Security Expert Shows You How To Get Through
Airport Lines Faster

Mobile Passport
Stumbling off a 13-hour flight from Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I dreaded the long queue at border control. But instead of joining hundreds of other weary travelers in the cattle drive, I launched an app. Like an angel from on high, an airport employee whisked me to an empty—yes, empty—line reserved for tech-savvy travelers.

Even if you’re not planning a trip immediately, do yourself a favor and download the free Mobile Passport for Apple and Android phones now.

With the app, American and most Canadian citizens can skip the slowest part of U.S. Customs by using a smartphone to import passport details, snap a selfie and answer basic questions.

By entering all your info in the app, there’s no filling out forms or queuing to use one of the newer photo-booth kiosks that immortalizes your airplane hair in a government database.

Even with the app, you’ll still need to travel with your real passport. And you’ll still have a brief customs interview—the one where an officer looks you in the eye and asks whether you handled any livestock abroad or are smuggling snails. Think of Mobile Passport less as a replacement and more like a Fastpass at Disneyland.

This app earns props from me because two decades into the mobile phone revolution, so much of the U.S. government feels stuck on the rotary dial. Only one state, Iowa, has begun testing a smartphone driver’s license, even though the tech could vastly improve the security, not to mention the convenience, of our most ubiquitous form of I.D.


Mobile Passport brings the government and tech industry together to solve a real pickle: Funding for customs officers hasn’t kept pace with surging international arrivals at U.S. airports. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Airports Council International, a trade group, teamed up to make the Mobile Passport app with Airside Mobile, whose founders helped introduce the first mobile boarding passes in the U.S. It is paid for by sponsors including Boeing, and its functionality could be incorporated into future airline apps.

The result: Wait times are going down. Other tech efforts are helping, too, including automated kiosks and a $100 program called Global Entry that requires your fingerprints. But Mobile Passport is free and about as fast as Global Entry. It’s especially good for families and takes zero planning, other than remembering to download an app.

Though simple, it can be confusing if you don’t know what to expect. Here’s the play by play:

Step 1: Open the app. Add your real passport details, either by typing them or by scanning your passport with your phone’s camera. Then take a selfie. No hats or duck face, please—this is official business.

If you’re traveling with your family, you can add the whole gang to your app. And you can do it all from home, from the airport or even on board the flight (assuming you already have the app). All your family’s personal info is stored on the phone for future uses, locked behind a passcode you set.

Step 2: On your never-ending return flight, you’ll have a little bit of homework. Pull out your phone—yes, even in airplane mode—open the app, tap New Trip, select a participating airport and answer four basic questions.

It’s an abbreviated version of the standard white-and-blue U.S. Customs form. You and your family members won’t need the paper form; if your flight crew is pushing it hard, show them you have the app. Bonus: No scrambling for a pen. You can also fill out this information in the airport after you land.

Step 3: When you’re back on American tarmac, turn on your phone’s cellular or Wi-Fi connection, open the app and press a button. The app submits all the info you just entered to customs, and gives you back a digital receipt with a QR code. This is your ticket to the express lane.

Step 4: When you get to the border control area, find the dedicated Mobile Passport lane. It should be much, much, much shorter than the regular lane. If you don’t see it, just ask; it’s so short, it may be hidden.

When your turn comes, hand over your passport to the customs officer and wave the app over a scanner. After you answer a few questions, you’re on your way to the luggage carousel. You’ll scan the app one more time after you grab your bags.

Since it launched in 2014, Mobile Passport has been used more than 380,000 times. Now it’s available in 13 airports, covering 62% of international fliers. (It should pass 20 airports by the end of this year; find a full list here.) It doesn’t currently work at land or sea ports—and, of course, it won’t speed up queues outside the U.S.


Use Mobile Passport at these airports:

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta

Chicago O’Hare

Dallas/Fort Worth


Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood


Minneapolis-St. Paul

New York, JFK

Newark Liberty


San Francisco

San Jose


It’s coming soon to:



Washington Dulles

I had a smooth experience using Mobile Passport at San Francisco International Airport, but my parents had more challenges on a recent flight into Newark. There, airport staff who weren’t familiar with the app hustled my parents along to the regular line. Ouch. If you get pushback from airport staff, “be somewhat insistent,” said Dan Tancier, the CBP’s Director of Travel and Tourism Initiatives.

I followed up with a few more questions:

Aren’t phones banned in customs? That used to be the case, but those signs are coming down. Still, don’t even try filming officers or their computer screens.

Does the government use Mobile Passport to track us? No. Your information stays on the phone until you transmit it upon landing. “Nothing extra is being collected other than what is on your passport and what you enter into the app,” Mr. Tancier said.

Is it secure? It is, so long as you are mindful of your phone. The app encrypts your data and stores it on your phone; you never create an account in the cloud. Your data is protected by a four-digit code; please don’t choose 1234.

When you submit your data to customs, it is encrypted and never saved on a nongovernmental computer.

Does using Mobile Passport make you more, or less, likely to be questioned by customs staff? Officials say they treat you just like any other passport holder. If you’re smuggling goods into the U.S., they’re still onto you, even if you use the app.

When more people find out about this app, won’t it be less efficient? When Mobile Passport first came out, some flight attendants were hesitant to recommend it to passengers out of fear passengers would fill up their secret fast line. But at airports where it has grown popular, such as Miami, local officials have been able to add additional Mobile Passport lines, because it doesn’t require much overhead.

More to the point, studies have shown a Mobile Passport user requires about a fifth as much time at border control as a traditional passenger because there’s no futzing with forms or data entry. The lesson: Using Mobile Passport speeds up everyone, so there’s no reason to keep it a secret.

Airport Security Shortcuts Other Than PreCheck

Would you pay $10 to $15 a month for a guaranteed cut to the front of some crowded airport security lines, even ahead of PreCheck members and first-class passengers?

Clear is a private trusted-traveler program sanctioned by the Transportation Security Administration. It has lanes at only 13 airports—San Francisco, Denver and Orlando, Fla., among them.

Once enrolled, members go to Clear’s faster lane instead of TSA and have their identity verified by fingerprint or iris scan. Then they go straight to the X-ray machine. The speedy service is finding new life because airport security screening lines have disrupted so many passengers this year.


Enrollment this year through June tripled, compared with the same period a year earlier, and now 500,000 people are enrolled. Delta Air Lines bought 5% of the company in April. It will be giving Clear memberships to its top-level frequent fliers and helping Clear open up at more airports, including Delta hubs, by the end of this year.

Airports like Seattle-Tacoma International, which has had big problems with long lines, have invited in Clear, with service to start in July. Sea-Tac had been talking with Clear for several years, and decided to bring it in before wait times escalated, airport spokesman Perry Cooper says.

Clear says it is making it easier for airports to make room for its operation at crowded checkpoints by shrinking the space it needs, moving from large kiosks to portable computer tablets for its ID verification. By the end of the year, Clear will be in 24 airports, chief executive Caryn Seidman-Becker says.

“When you don’t have to take anything out of your wallet, it’s transformative. It’s step one to a faster, better experience,” she says.

Verifying identity at TSA checkpoints is just the beginning of what Clear and other biometric technology companies hope to do at airports. Just as ATMs shortened bank waits and toll tags sped up driving, identifying people by their fingerprints, eyes or photographs may shorten airport lines and speed up what has become a lengthy process.

Clear and Alaska Airlines are already using biometrics in San Jose, Calif., for boarding passes—travelers can get on flights with just their fingerprints. Clear hopes airlines will start using biometrics to simplify entrance to airport clubs—two fingers on a reader instead of showing a card or having a clerk verify membership.

Wireless Camera Finder

Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program uses fingerprint readers to identify trusted travelers who can skip passport control lines. Airlines are working on baggage tags issued from biometric identification instead of driver’s license and reservation number. And retailers may someday use biometrics to speed up purchases at airport stores, since Clear has customer credit cards on file.

Another path: sports stadiums. The San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Miami Marlins are using Clear to give fast access to member fans at baseball games. The New York Yankees have tried Clear for suite access.

Clear doesn’t do background checks. It verifies identity by checking passports or driver’s licenses, plus specific questions on past history similar to credit-application type queries. Enrollment can be done in a few minutes. Clear originally issued cards, but now just identifies members by the fingerprints, iris scans and photographs it collects.

At checkpoints, Clear employees verify identity, check boarding passes through TSA’s system, then carry the Clear member’s bags to the X-ray machine belt. All Clear members still go through physical screening.

The cost of such privilege is $179 a year, but Clear does offer discounts, such as a current $59 Groupon for a nine-month membership. Family members are $50 and children under 18 are free. Delta says it will offer free Clear memberships to its diamond-level frequent fliers shortly and discounted rates for all members of its SkyMiles frequent-flier program.

Clear was launched in 2006 by Verified Identity Pass Inc., a company founded by New York journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill. He was frustrated that the newly formed TSA was putting everyone through the same screening process even though some people were willing to undergo background checks for expedited screening.

Verified Identity won over few airports and few customers and went bankrupt in 2009. A new company, Alclear, bought Clear out of bankruptcy in 2010 and offered to honor the 160,000 existing memberships. Alclear was formed by Ms. Seidman-Becker and co-founder Ken Cornick, Clear’s president and chief financial officer. The company is based in New York.

Some travelers say the certainty of not having to wait in TSA lines at airports with a Clear station allows them to schedule more meetings on business trips or spend more time at the beach. They can show up at the airport only a few minutes before flights start boarding.

“It’s almost like you’re paying to get out of jail,” says John Ormesher, a Florida-based semiconductor distributor who travels frequently for business and pleasure and signed up for Clear in January 2015. He’s loved it so far. “As PreCheck has gotten more and more crowded, it really is nice, because if there are 25 or 30 or 50 people in a PreCheck line, we jump right ahead of all those folks,” Mr. Ormesher says.

But others think it’s wasteful, since PreCheck lines are usually relatively short, even when regular screening lines are long. Phil Corriveau, a consultant in Raleigh, N.C., signed up for Clear when it first started and renewed his membership for five years. He still has more than two years remaining, but he hasn’t bothered to reactivate.


“I don’t see any advantage to going back to Clear,” Mr. Corriveau says. He uses PreCheck.

Clear faces a chicken-and-egg problem with airports: Many are reluctant to contract with the company because enrollment in their city is small. But Clear says membership rolls are small in some cities because the service isn’t available.

Miami International Airport brought Clear into two checkpoints a year ago because it wanted to offer a customer-friendly option. But the service “has not had a major impact on our overall checkpoint throughput,” airport spokesman Greg Chin says. Miami expects usage to pick up with Delta’s push for its frequent fliers.

Las Vegas McCarran International Airport says Clear verifications at its checkpoints tripled in the first four months of 2016 compared with the prior year, but remain very small. In March, for example, Clear handled 10,203 passengers, or one-half of 1% of the two million people who departed from McCarran that month, the airport says.

It isn’t clear if Clear saves TSA time processing passengers. A TSA spokesman says the document-checking process is likely to be faster, but TSA has never studied that and doesn’t know of any locations where Clear has saved TSA manpower. Clear, TSA says, is a “concierge service” that operates under contracts with airports to make screening quicker and easier for some customers.

TSA monitors and inspects Clear but doesn’t share data. The agency says getting cleared by Clear only means you go to front of the travel document check line. At some airports, TSA lets travelers verified by Clear go right to screening. At others, TSA officers double-check boarding passes after Clear.

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty Henry, Owner


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