Passengers wait in line to go through security at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on November 21, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of the things that gets people all torqued up about air travel is that it is one of the few places in American life where we are forced to be open and honest about the one thing that everybody pursues and nobody talks about: status. At the airport, there are aristocrats and there are peons, and no doubt is left about who’s who.

Hence, the very carefully manicured outrage directed at CLEAR, the security-expediting service.

CLEAR has some fancy high-tech hoo-haw on the front end—biometric scanners and whatnot—but what it really offers is an officially sanctioned way to cut in line. CLEAR customers check in with an agent who then escorts them to the front of the security line, where the usual TSA procedures take over. Once TSA PreCheck really started to take off, the emergence of services such as CLEAR was inevitable: In airports ranging from DCA to DFA to LAX, there are so many TSA PreCheck flyers now that the PreCheck line is often longer than the standard one. This is the opposite of a network effect: Whereas things such as email and social media become more useful as more people sign up for them, services such as CLEAR become marginally less valuable every time a new client signs up. The ideal number of CLEAR users is the same as the ideal number of passengers on an airplane: Whatever the number is that keeps everybody else out of my way. If CLEAR gets popular enough, there will be some kind of bigger, better, more expensive super-CLEAR for those who want to avoid standing in line—and I’ll probably sign up for it, if I can afford it. 

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