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TSA to require additional screening step for some travelers at airports

The change was spurred by concerns about Clear’s vetting procedures after a security breach last summer

5 min

A growing number of travelers enrolled in Clear’s airport screening program will undergo additional identification checks in the wake of an incident last summer that raised security concerns about the company’s process for verifying customer identities.

For $189 a year, Clear members have access to their own airport security lines, where they verify identities at a kiosk before being escorted to the front of the Transportation Security Administration screening line. But under additional changes outlined in a recent letter from the TSA to the company and participating airports, an increasing number of Clear members will need to have their IDs checked by a TSA officer, a step that is required for most other travelers.

The TSA began increasing the number of random checks for Clear customers after a security incident in July 2022, but starting this month, more Clear customers will be subject to additional scrutiny, a change that erodes one of the company’s key selling points: the ability to move quickly through security while avoiding the same TSA identification checks as other travelers.

Clear members previously have been able to skip the TSA review because the company had already vetted their identities, following TSA requirements. Once at the airport, members verified their identity by having their eyes or fingerprints scanned at Clear kiosks.

With a record number of people expected to travel this summer, the change could mean longer waits as more Clear members undergo additional vetting. Clear does not provide enrollment numbers for its airport program but the company said in an email it processes more than 10 percent of travelers at the 52 airports that are part of the program.

The TSA has its own program to speed travelers through airport checkpoints, called PreCheck. Under that program, which costs $78 for new enrollees and is good for five years, people who undergo a background check, interview and provide fingerprints have access to the shorter PreCheck lines. PreCheck customers must still have identification checked by a TSA officer, but once cleared, they don’t need to remove their shoes, belts, liquids, laptops and jackets during screening.

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TSA officials wouldn’t detail last summer’s security breach, citing national security concerns, but said the new requirement is critical to the safety of the nation’s aviation system.

“TSA is responsible for ensuring that all systems and programs, including those provided by private companies, meet requisite standards and will take necessary steps to ensure security needs are met,” the agency said in a statement. “Accurate and reliable verification of passenger identity is foundational to aviation security and effective screening by TSA.”

In a statement, the company said that despite the shift, “CLEAR will continue to deliver the superior and secure experience that travelers know, love and depend on.”

Some Clear members are starting to notice the changes.

Taylor Poindexter, 32, from Arlington, Va., said traveling with Clear has always been a breeze. She had validated her identity at a Clear kiosk and been escorted to the front of the TSA line, but she noticed a difference this year.

“Now almost every time I travel, I’m asked for extra validation,” she said. “It drives me nuts.”

Poindexter, an engineering manager for a music streaming service, said membership is included with her American Express card, but the recent changes might make her rethink the service if she has to pay for it on her own.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat of the House Homeland Security Committee, applauded the TSA’s decision to require Clear customers to show identification.

“While we all want to get through airport security checkpoints quickly and efficiently, security must always be paramount,” Thompson said. “It’s clear that TSA needed to act to close this security gap.”

In an email, Clear spokeswoman Annabel Walsh pushed back on Thompson’s characterization, saying the company “has an extraordinary security track record.” She said the security incident that happened last summer was “the result of human error that the company addressed immediately.”

Members of the House Homeland Security Committee were made aware of the issue late last year. In December, Thompson, along with Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), wrote a letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske to request the TSA require that all passengers — including those enrolled in Clear — have their identities verified by TSA officers.

“The best way to address those sensitive vulnerabilities adequately and ensure the accurate vetting of passengers against terrorist watchlists is to require every passenger to go through TSA-specific identity verification,” the lawmakers wrote.

Some experts are skeptical that additional identification checks for Clear members during an already busy travel season will improve aviation security.

Tom Bossert, a White House homeland security official under Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump who is now president of Trinity Cyber, said Clear has proved to be effective at screening travelers and helping airports move more passengers efficiently through security. Given that, additional checks will probably disrupt operations at airports that depend on Clear.

“The people caught in the middle of this aren’t just Clear members, but the entire traveling public,” Bossert said.