First-Class Privilege

Published: May 11, 2008
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff went to Baltimore-Washington International Airport two weeks ago to inaugurate a program called Checkpoint Evolution. It introduces 600 “whole-body imagers” that replicate, in schematic 3-D, everything a passenger is hiding under his or her clothing — not only hypothetical daggers, pistols, knuckle dusters and cocaine but also actual moles, scars, sores, nipples and genitalia. And all of it so vividly that the A.C.L.U. calls the imagers “virtual strip-search” machines. But Checkpoint Evolution is about comfort as well as security. Pleasant music, better lighting and open spaces are supposed to change the airport-security experience “in a way that lowers the general stress level,” Chertoff said. He failed, however, to mention a thing about checkpoints that drives stress levels to insurrectionary heights: the segregated security lines that certain airports and airlines permit. Many first- and business-class passengers, as well as frequent fliers, zip right to the metal detectors while coach passengers snake through lines for waits than can exceed half an hour. If Americans will put up with that, they’ll put up with being seen naked.

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There have always been special queues for first-class check-in and boarding. Those are part of a private transaction between an airline and a customer. But two-tiered security checks are a different story. Airport security, after all, is not a business transaction. It is justified as national defense, mandated by federal law, overseen by the Transportation Security Administration and carried out by either the T.S.A. or a private security service under its ultimate authority. It exists in its present form because of the national emergency of Sept. 11, 2001. It is financed by a “Sept. 11 security fee” that all fliers pay.

The T.S.A., whenever it is called on the carpet (which is often) about the two-tiered system it countenances, responds with the same piece of casuistry. The rich are scanned the same way as everyone else, the T.S.A. insists, but the formation of the queues themselves is not our department. “That real estate in front of the checkpoint is owned by the airlines,” one spokeswoman told USA Today in 2006. (The law is not crystal clear. It gives supervisory responsibility for the entire airport to a T.S.A. “federal security director.”)

Whether richer fliers should be allowed to cut in line at checkpoints is one of a family of problems that crop up when public spaces and private interests intersect, and selling off favored outcomes makes the public spaces more efficient. Some states let single drivers pay extra to use H.O.V. lanes. What looks to one person like flexibility looks to another like bribing your way through the system.

Although there is no principled argument for segregated airport security, maybe there is a pragmatic one. Elite travelers tend to be repeat travelers. As likely as not, they have had their luggage rummaged through three times in the past week, and the airlines — or their databases — know who they are. If there were some security-based system for speeding their transit, that would be great. Since there is no such system, maybe the rough-and-ready class system is (without meaning to be, of course) fair.

As it happens, creating reliable databases has been a main focus of those who want to reform checkpoints so that more people have access to expedited treatment. So-called “registered traveler” programs, like Verified Identity Pass, which has about 100,000 members, offer private queues in more than a dozen airports. Anyone can pay a $100 annual fee and $28 for a T.S.A. background check. If you’re not a security risk, you get a biometric identifier (an iris image or a fingerprint) that lets you get in a new, faster line.

But something doesn’t add up. Even a suicide bomber can have a fixed address and a clean police record. The actual security procedures at the checkpoint — the rummaging and scanning and X-raying — remain indispensable. This means the background check and the biometric stuff are just mumbo-jumbo to hide the real nature of the transaction, which is a fee for a shorter line.

Airlines take a dim view of such programs. Delta has opposed them in Atlanta, Northwest has resisted them in Memphis and Continental has fought them in Newark. James May, C.E.O. of the Air Transport Association, which represents the big airlines, told a Senate committee in 2006 that money spent on Registered Traveler had been “wasted.” The airlines’ views are not surprising — after all, Registered Traveler makes available for $100 a perquisite that they have been using to sell $4,700 tickets. Every airline wants to lure business- and first-class fliers from other airlines and to turn its own coach passengers into business ones. At United, the 8 percent of customers who buy high-end seats reportedly account for 36 percent of revenues. Anything that widens the difference between a coach flight and a business flight is bound to be a moneymaker for the industry as a whole.

It is hard to know whether to applaud Registered Traveler for allowing people who don’t fly first class to pay for quicker lines — or whether to deplore it for making a flawed system more widespread. In any case, the U.S. is not the place where money talks loudest in airports. London Heathrow’s “fast track” system for high-paying passengers offers shorter lines even for immigration control. Lufthansa (in Frankfurt) and Qatar Airways (in Doha) and Silverjet (in Luton, north of London) have all opened terminals for premium customers, who need no longer cross paths with common travelers at all. If U.S. airlines couldn’t pamper high payers, they might seek similar solutions. For travelers, it seems, two lines are intolerable but one is unattainable.

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