On Sunday, Canadians will be able to buy into an American registered-traveller program for the first time, but should we?
Registered-traveller programs charge passengers an annual fee for the fast-lane pre-security privileges allotted to those with premium tickets or elite loyalty status. For frequent travellers, including those who long ago realized that only certain airports have lines for elite or business-class passengers, registered travel seems an obvious boon. Those lines are hell, and when you're in the middle of one with your flight time approaching, you'd pay just about anything to get to the front of it.
But there are problems.
First, only three airports have signed up with any of the three American companies planning to provide the service. Second, a previous attempt in this business failed. In 2005, a company called Clear, working with the Transportation Security Administration, had an extensive registered-traveller program for American citizens in 21 airports across the U.S., and despite many glowing reviews went bankrupt four years later - a victim, industry insiders say, of overextension.
So the question is: Should you spend about $200 a year for membership in a program whose very foundations are reliability and ubiquity but is currently offering neither?
The first of the registered-traveller services to roll out will be offered by iQueue, a newcomer that will start selling memberships on Sunday, and has signed up the Indianapolis airport to get the fast lanes running by Aug. 16. It's in negotiations with four or five other airports, according to managing partner Fred Fischer, though as yet no one else had signed on the dotted line. The standard fee for iQueue will be $169 (U.S.) with various early-bird offers promised. And, along with the other two providers, iQueue promises "interoperability": It will honour its competitors' memberships and vice versa. "No one company can build a nationwide network," Fischer says, pointing to Clear's overextension problem.
On flyertalk.com, where frequent and enthusiastic flyers kvetch, there's quite a bit of support for the new service, even from those who lost money when the old one went under. Bay-area tech employee Ian Fette was a Clear subscriber and says the service was invaluable. San Francisco airport "can be unpredictable - the crew will cut to the front of the line - and you never know how long it's going to take in Seattle either, so just being able to go to the front was worth the annual fee."
Clear, because of its name recognition, is seen as the early leader in the field, and its new chief executive officer is at pains to calm fears of an instant replay.
"Clear failed because of a bloated cost structure, financial leverage and an economic downturn," says Caryn Seidman-Becker, the former capital management executive who is leading the new effort. "We have no leverage, no debt. The enrolment process is important, and the rollout strategy."
The new Clear will launch in the fall at the Denver airport - which alone had 20,000 Clear members in the past - and Orlando is scheduled to follow shortly thereafter. (Clear will not initially make memberships available to Canadians.)
The third service is JetLanes, pulled together by staff of the former Clear. It has no airports yet, but is pursuing agreements with airlines.
It really comes down to faith. If you buy in, your early-adopter membership could help to establish a system that may help business travellers cut time from U.S. airport waits.
Or you could just be out $200.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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