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Faster way to avoid long airport security lines

When Michael Brunson walked into Denver International Airport on a Wednesday afternoon, he saw a familiar sight: Lines of travelers waiting to go through the security.

Brunson didn't get frustrated. In fact, he didn't even worry about the possibility of standing in line. That's because he's a member of Clear, a private service that verifies the identity of travelers before sending them to the front of TSA security lines.

"Anything other than waiting is awesome," said Brunson, who spent about 30 seconds being verified by Clear before heading to his flight. "Just hopping through the line and being done is wonderful."

Passengers wait to clear security at Miami International Airport.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Passengers wait to clear security at Miami International Airport.

Clear uses biometric identification (fingerprints and iris images) to verify the person holding a boarding pass is a member and is ready for final clearance by the TSA. Members pay $179 annually for the service.

"Consumers are loving the Clear experience," said Caryn Seidman-Becker, chairman and CEO of Clear. "Not only does it strengthen security but it brings consumers a fast, frictionless experience."

Since Seidman-Becker and a business partner bought Clear in 2010, she's been growing the company by leveraging the speed and security of biometric identification. In the last year, enrollment is up more than 200 percent to more than a half-million members. People who are willing to pay to avoid security lines that seem to be getting worse.

This week American Airlines blamed the Transportation Security Administration for almost 6,800 passengers missing their flights during one week in mid-March because they were stuck getting through security. "The lines at TSA checkpoints nationwide have become unacceptable," American spokesman Ross Feinstein said. "Our customers are waiting in TSA lines greater than one hour."

When asked about complaints regarding long lines, a TSA spokesperson said, "While we at TSA have a robust plan to address the volume — including more canine use, encouraging 'PreCheck' enrollment, overtime, accelerated hiring and more, we are appreciative that our airline partners are working with us and asking travelers to arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights to help alleviate some of the expected summer congestion."

Clear is at just 13 airports, and expanding to more has been slow, in part, because many airports have limited space for TSA lines. With space limited, there's a reluctance to free up one of those lines for Clear and a relatively small number of travelers compared to those going through TSA lanes.

While Seidman-Becker sees congestion at airports as a clear opportunity, she wants to push biometric identification even further. The company is testing a pilot program in San Jose, California, where members show up at the airport, put their fingers on the Clear machine to prove their identity and their boarding pass immediately comes up. "You don't need your cellphone, you don't need a ticket in terms of a paper ticket, you just tap and go. It is that seamless, frictionless experience from curb to gate, it's awesome."


But is that experience worth the price of membership?

David Heyman, a homeland security expert at The Aspen Institute, said Clear struggles to win over many travelers because those people have other options that already cut down their airport wait times. "With the preclearance, Pre-Check programs, with the airline elite programs that allow people to move faster through lines, it (Clear) hasn't necessarily caught on, and it's only in a few airports around the United States."

The next frontier for Clear: Stadiums and sports arenas, which are ramping up security that means it now takes longer to get inside. Coors Field in Denver now has a designated entrance for Clear members who can enroll in the stadium service for free.

"It sure beats having to wait in line and having to come through the gates with the crowd," said passenger Joe Cassa after using the Clear line to go in and watch the Colorado Rockies.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.