Are Premium Security Lines Unfair to the Masses?

David Post thinks so (rather dramatically).

I noticed, as I was waiting in line at the security checkpoint at the San Francisco airport waiting to board a flight back east, that there was a “Priority Line” for “uniformed crewmembers” and “First and Business Class customers.” Excuse me, but what the f*** is up with that? I have no problem with the idea that people with greater resources can purchases conveniences in the marketplace (like a First or Business Class ticket). But the airport security checkpoint is a government service manned by government employees.

David, you really just noticed elite security lines?

Jeanne makes some good points in favor of elite lines, and I’d like to expand on those.

Of course, most people using those lines aren’t “the rich” but elite frequent flyers, since most passengers are domestic where 90% of seats up front are upgrades and where elites traveling as ‘self-loading cargo’ are invited to use those lines generally as well.

Most airports are run by governments and yet they work closely with airlines, determining who gets which gates (not giving equal access to all comers), who gets which slots (determined by the Department of Transportation at slot controlled airports but subject to much political pressure), and even which planes take-off in which order with the biggest airlines at a given airport having the greatest sway especially during irregular operations though air traffic control is provided by the government as well.

It’s reasonable to ask why all of these things are provided by the government in the first place, including security where it’s not obvious that a government workforce is superior to a private one, but it’s surprising to see this law professor so outraged by the notion that government making tradeoff decisions is so shocking, violating his fundamental sense of decency.

And of course this goals well beyond air transportation, the ‘rich’ presumably have greater access to expensive hybrid vehicles which are allowed to bypass traffic in HOV or HOT lanes.

The government says that they control the checkpoints only and not the queuing up to those checkpoints, and that’s generally correct, the entrances aren’t manned by TSA staff.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to queue the way the government sets up lines, as well, such as for ‘trusted traveler’ programs that skip normal security lines (where, whatever their effectiveness, the strategy is to focus screening efforts on high risk passengers rather than wasting resources on low risk ones) and Global Entry which expedites return to the U.S. in exchange for advance pre-screening.

In the case of airport security (theatre), a real cost is imposed on the airlines — long or more importantly inconsistent and unpredictable queues that increase the time it takes to travel and makes airlines less competitive with trains or driving on shorter routes and raises the hassle factor for customers, air marshals taking up seats that might go to customers especially on the full flights so often experienced today, IT expenses required to comply with no fly lists to name just a few.

Is it unreasonable for the government to try to impose these costs in a manner which does the least damage to the affected businesses? Their frequent flyers are their repeat customers, responsible for a disproportionate share of revenue. Reducing their inconvenience reduces the amount of revenue foregone by airlines as a result of government mandates.

And while this is hardly a rich vs. poor issue (it’s more business vs. leisure traveler, and few leisure air travelers represent ‘the poor’ for which “what the f*** is up”-style outrage might be morally appropriate), it’s in the limit true that both the rich and poor spend roughly the same amount of time over the course of a year in a queue at the DMV — it seems to me better to focus on fixing the DMV rather than punishing frequent business travelers although even at the DMV at least some states allow you to send someone in your place, which elite frequent flyers can’t do at airport security — it’s not at all the case that all citizens would spend the same amount of time in line at the TSA checkpoint over the course of a year.

In fact, frequent travelers using priority security lines still spend more time in security lines than infrequent travelers and here the analogy certainly breaks down, because someone flying every week of the year for work is going to be in lines much more than infrequent travelers. Here one might ask why it’s fair to make them spend so much more time in line for security than the average American? Isn’t that punishing them unfairly?

And that’s precisely what expedited security programs like Trusted Traveler at least aim to get at, there’s no reason to spend as much time with them since they’re going through every week and can very much already be known to the system, and don’t need to have their time taxed so much more in the aggregate than everyone else.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. David Post is a moron.

    “But the airport security checkpoint is a government service manned by government employees.”

    No, in this case, is isn’t. SFO one of the 17 airports using private security – Covenant Aviation Security if I recall correctly.

    Take your laptop out, your shoes and jacket off and get back in line.

  2. I’ll try to base my conclusion on logic:

    Everyone actually receive the same service – screening by the TSA (or equivalent). It is the wait time to receive the service that is differ between different lines.

    The access to the “priority line” is open to everyone who is willing to pay for it.

    So, the Governmental service (the security screening) is the same, and access to ancillary better experience (shorter line) is open to everyone who is willing to pay. Therefore, despite the fact that these days I rarely visit that line, I do not see any problem with it.

  3. I’m not sure that I follow all of your logic. Why would you expect people wo fly often to spend less (or the same) cumulative time in security lines than those who fly infreuently?

    Regardless, one thing you fail to mention is that Priority Lines at airport security are much like express lanes at the supermarket. It allows people who fly a lot to not have to wait for infrequent flyers to be told, twice, to take off their shoes, to empty their pockets, to remove their laptop from the bag, that all of your liquids must go in a ziplock bag, etc.

  4. Hah, interestingly I have chosen to use the regular lines vs ‘priority’ lines because the regular line was shorter (if there is such a thing!). I’m not sure how it is in other cities but NYC priority lines are crowded, whatever the reasons may be. As for special treatment for premium travelers, well there is special treatment in any (for profit) company … the more $$ you spend … the more ‘love’ you will receive.

  5. It’s just ridiculous to try to convince readers that frequent fliers are unfairly punished because in the aggregate they spend more time in line than the occasional traveler. But that’s just one flaw in this post, which jumps between airlines, airports, ATC, politics, HOV lanes, and elite treatment. I’m not sure what Gary was trying to convey, but my sense is Gary always goes on the offensive when preferential elite treatment is under attack.

    You can always dream up justification for preferential elite treatment. The unfortunate side-effect is it reinforces the have/have-not divide. The ‘haves’ will always defend it, to the death. Regrettably they forget what happens to the have-nots, whose service degrades over time to the benefit of the haves.

    Air travel is a public utility using public resources. Preferential treatment for a privileged few makes no economic sense – rather the focus should be to optimize the investment and fix the problem for all stakeholders.

  6. “It’s reasonable to ask why all of these things are provided by the government in the first place, including security where it’s not obvious that a government workforce is superior to a private one, but it’s surprising to see this law professor so outraged by the notion that government making tradeoff decisions is so shocking, violating his fundamental sense of decency.”

    It’s a pretty good sign, in an argument, of a weak argument that you go after the form of the opposing argument rather than it’s substance. The fact that you’re doing so above, is pretty indicative of the rest of the post.

    “So, the Governmental service (the security screening) is the same, and access to ancillary better experience (shorter line) is open to everyone who is willing to pay. Therefore, despite the fact that these days I rarely visit that line, I do not see any problem with it.”

    Wow, that rivals medieval theologians for carefully constructed logic that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue. The government is running security; security is not simply stepping through the machine, it includes the wait for it as well. This is even more true as resources that would otherwise service the regular folks are reduced, slowing the main line down even more.

    How would you feel about a popular lunch business that let its regular customers bypass the line by paying $10?

    No, Post has a point. Is there a reason why a government activity is allowing privileged access for people who pay more money for it?

  7. You didn’t quote his summative point: “Government services should be distributed equally to all – it’s an aspirational principle perhaps often honored only in the breach, but to see it so crassly ignored strikes me as an outrage.” You’re trying to defend your privilege, which is fine, but First Class line jumping is a privilege and not equal treatment.

    Also, many airports don’t have separate elite lines. SDF did not from 2009-2011 (and I don’t believe it does today). Except for TSA Pre, ATL doesn’t either, since everyone can go to that checkpoint. It’s not crazy that he didn’t know.

  8. This is the most blatantly racist and biased Government program in decades. For the past year TSA has insisted that everyone must be subjected to the same security procedures, whether a child, elderly grandmother or US Senator. Now they are allowing the privileged buy their way out of the screening process.

    TSA is tacitly saying that the wealthy are more equal than others. Those chosen for the program will almost exclusively consist of well to do, mostly white, passengers. Minorities and low income travelers will bear the brunt of TSA practices while the privileged skirt them. This makes no sense from a security perspective since many terrorists have been frequent fliers or wealthy.

    This state sponsored extortion will establish a mechanism to allow arbitrary profiling of passengers in the future, which could include Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans.

    If someone can buy their way out of screening then this is no more than security theater and passenger harassment. Congress must demand that TSA adopt consistent, sensible and respectful procedures for everyone, not just the privileged.

  9. “How would you feel about a popular lunch business that let its regular customers bypass the line by paying $10?

    No, Post has a point. Is there a reason why a government activity is allowing privileged access for people who pay more money for it?”

    Obtaining a US Passport is also something the Government runs. You can either wait the normal standard processing time to get your passport (original or renewed) OR you can pay an expedited fee ($60) to get it much faster.

    Other government agencies, or agencies under the budget control of Congress, run in a similar fashion (for example the Post Office – you can either wait for your mail to get there, or you can pay a fee to get it there faster).

  10. Having been in both lines I don’t see priority security lines as outrage worthy like David Post apparently does. However, I also don’t see priority security lines as morally or ethically defensible as Gary apparently does.

    It’s true that these sorts of perks have been around a long time and in many different forms, but I believe it’s also true that the TSA is greatly exacerbating the problem by taking what used to be a relatively minor inconvenience and turning it into a much more disruptive complication and a serious civil liberties issue.

    Hopefully we can all agree that the maintaining the current airport security structure is in nobody’s best interest besides the companies who sell the TSA their x-ray machines and groping gloves.

  11. Actually probably the most important part of Gary’s post has been missed by many.
    “The government says that they control the checkpoints only and not the queuing up to those checkpoints, and that’s generally correct, the entrances aren’t manned by TSA staff”

    Until you get to the TSA id check the line and queuing is the responsibility of the airline/airport, so they can arrange it anyway they like.

    In that case why wouldn’t the airline want to reward those willing to pay and those who are it?s better customers.

    As to government services, you have to have had your head in the sand not to realize that the government offers those who can pay “premium services”. The passport is a perfect example as is the mail service. I can either stamp a letter and have it get there whenever or buy a more expensive express envelope and have it delivered overnight with a tracking number.

    The same is true when doing registration or obtaining some documents, I can pay for express service or wait in line like everyone else.

  12. don’t the airlines which HAVE Elite security lines, pay a compensatory amount to the airport and/or TSA to have a secondary set of lines?

  13. “Obtaining a US Passport is also something the Government runs. You can either wait the normal standard processing time to get your passport (original or renewed) OR you can pay an expedited fee ($60) to get it much faster.”

    And? That there are other things to criticize does not obviate the criticism of this particular item (Also, I note that the passport expedite service is ostensibly for people in a hurry, which justifies it more. If there was an expedited line for people whose planes were leaving soon, I wouldn’t have a problem with that).

  14. I have one factual issue with Gary’s post:

    Confusing frequent flyers with first/business class flyers. I am a frequent flyer and the only time I end up in cozy seats is if I get lucky at boarding. Strangely, most of the people sitting next to me in the cattle-class are ALSO business frequent flyers that also stood in the “non-priority” security line.

  15. @Total: I have witnessed sevral instances where the staff will jump those with flights leaving very soon to the front of the line.

    @Flying Bear: AFAIK, there is no need to be flying First/Biz to use the priority line, merely having your FF status printed on the boarding pass is enough.

  16. I agree with David Post in theory. The government is the government, and it should in instances of lines and waiting where everyone has to go through and be checked-treat everyone fairly. If they are proven to be less of a threat-such as the expedited programs where there are background checks in advance-then let them skip screening.

    But your argument that they should be let those lines exist so the airlines can be nice to their elites doesn’t really hold up: it’s not the airlines imposing the burden and the wait, it’s the government. And if the government does it to everyone, then it’s fair and the frequent flyers won’t chose a different airline because of it. (I’ve heard private jet passengers don’t have to go through this. I think they definitely should have to, especially with the extra burden they put on air traffic controllers, who I believe are government employees.)

    However, I have read that the airlines can do this because the TSA is basically just leasing or renting space from the airport, and the airlines basically control that space. I’m not sure I buy that argument, but it makes a little more sense to me than many others on the issue.

  17. “Are premium lines unfair?” Do you believe that capitalism and its resulting income disparity is unfair? This is the bassis for our economy.

  18. Premium security lines in SFO are unfair to 1Ks. Now with credit card access everyone is a priority passenger. Faster to go through with GM, or travel with another airline.

  19. @FlyingBear my point is that most first class domestic seats go to elites, and that the lines are for premium passengers including frequent flyers, that David Post is confusing matters by saying they are first class lines when in fact they are mostly elite lines.

  20. In almost everything else in life you can pay more to get more, whether it’d faster mail or faster passport processing. Both are government run, no less. You can also pay more for better food, clothes, and housing, all if which are necessities.

    So why is it people get upset that we can pay more for something as trivial as the fast line at the airport? It’s ridiculous.

  21. I could care less either way, as a 1K I often go through the normal line. Life is not fair. My frustration is the frequency with which TSA checkpoints are undermanned, especially at peak times. Yes, I am talking to you HNL Checkpoint #5!

    I think passengers are much more compliant and the overall stress level of passengers reduced when all checkpoint lanes are manned and it is a smooth and efficient process. If that means getting rid of elite lines, as a 1K, I say fine.

  22. I think passport processing is a poor comparison, if you loose your passport right before a trip chances are people of any income level appreciate that there is a way to get a passport to allow them to take their trip. You could even argue there’s a need for such a service.

    Otoh, there isn’t a need to offer a priority security line. I like the Nexus model in Canada, pay a small fee and get priority immigration and security for 5 years completely sep from airline status.

  23. At the end of the day, only 1 thing matters. The actual checkpoint (where they check your IDs) and where the x-ray and nude-o-scopes are are managed by the TSA – the lines and the space leading up to it and after it is managed by the airport (read: airlines).

    The OP’s understanding of the system is flawed.

  24. There are a few points of confusion I note in some of the replies:

    Most important, on the analogy with expedited passports, etc.: does the revenue from the F tickets go to the government? If not, then it seems problematic that tax-payer money is funding, via HLS/TSA, the selective screening process for those that are “paying more”, as they’re paying more to the airlines. Now, on the other hand, if the airlines are footing the TSA bill for the additional security lanes (without, emphatically, detriment to the pre-existing all-inclusive lanes), then it seems much less problematic.

    Now, assuming that THERE is an increase in tax-payer costs associated with the screening lanes, the relevant question becomes: do those lanes actually expedite the security process on average for everyone (i.e. by separating out experienced flyers). If they do, then, while it is in a sense unfair, I think it is at least justifiable on the grounds of overall efficiency/streamlining/preserving resources for the non-elite lines. However, if it is not the case, then it seems doubly ridiculous.

  25. *sorry: by revenue from F tickets, I meant revenue from F tickets which is allocated for security services.

  26. I disagree with David Post here… First of all, the lines leading up to security is not controlled by the government, the government only manages the processes between the ID checkpoint and the exit point of the security area.

    I do not consider the priority lanes to be a form of “preferential” treatment, but rather a convenience afforded by airlines primarily for very frequent travelers. We do not get better service/preferential treatment from the TSA or private contractors during the security process, but an alternative for those who routinely goes through the same process frequently like elite flyers and airline flight crew members that normally goes through the entire process in less than a minute.

    Honestly, even if it may seem unfair to some of you, this is a more efficient way to process more passengers per hour than grouping up everybody together. Think, the lane is as slow as the slowest person in the lane. By putting everybody in the same lane will create a bigger bottleneck at the machines and that is not going to improve anything.

  27. @Bill Fisher…seriously? You hold an opinion that “This is the most blatantly racist and biased Government program in decades.”
    Man I think I would love to sit around a camp fire and listen to your ideas. It would be humorous

  28. Expedited immigration processing is different; that money goes to the government. It’s not an appropriate analogy. Here, the government does the work and because people pay someone else extra, the government handles those people first.
    With expedited government services, people pay the government extra. And it’s not common: people can have a last minute need to go to another country and the expedited passport processing takes that into account. But I’m not aware of being able to pay extra to skip the line at the DMV.

  29. What’s the moral significance of extra money going to the government? Why would THAT make it ok? In this case, expedited service means the government imposes less of a cost on the airline industry.

  30. The government is going to screen everyone and, according to American custom, we line up to do so. But the airlines can let people skip that line by being an elite, by buying a business or first class ticket, or now-even by simply paying extra for “priority access.” The airlines are benefiting by charging people to skip the government’s line.
    If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, I expect the cashier to say something. I’ve thought about trying to use the “elite” line for TSA without the proper credentials, but refrained from doing so because I’m afraid that if I use that line without the blessing of the airline, TSA is going to consider a security threat and not let me board the plane or put me on the no-fly list or something.

    It appears that the airlines are selling a government benefit by letting people use those line. That’s the significance of the money going to the airline.

  31. If you can get your “damn those rich people and their privileges” attitude out of the way, there is a simple and logical explanation. The typical leisure traveler buys their discount ticket far in advance, and buys only the cheap economy ticket. If the airline were to fill every plane they flew with this low price traveler, they would go out of business.

    Repeat: the discount leisure ticket is too low to even cover the cost of flying the plane !

    The bulk of the revenue the airline gets comes from the higher prices paid by the First Class, Business Class, and last minute purchase Economy business travelers. The more difficult and time consuming the airline makes airline travel for the high priced business traveler, the fewer of them will travel. If enough business travelers switch to video conferencing etc instead of airline travel, there will not be enough people paying enough for their tickets to pay the cost of flying the plane.

    If you are standing in a longer line, because you either bought a advance discount ticket, or even because you rarely fly and hence have no status, your ticket price is being subsidised by the business travelers in the shorter line. You should be grateful, not resentful, towards them. Because without their higer priced tickets and more frequent travel, you wouldn’t be able to fly at a price anywhere near what you could afford….

  32. Gary – interesting article but one correction. Airlines all have the same “sway” with ATC. ATC is first-come-first-serve, and they are very good adhering to this. United’s 747 won’t take off if I was there earlier in my small Baron. Trust me on this – this is how it actually works.

  33. We all pay a security fee, it’s part of our total ticket cost. And last I checked, everybody pays the same security fee. So why the preferential treatment? The extra money you are paying for your ticket is not for faster security screening.
    Security is a government requirement, and there is a 3rd party selling faster access to this government control, with none of the extra revenue going to toward this government control. Perhaps I can setup a booth in front of the DMV entrance, letting my “best customers” go to the shortest lines.

  34. nycman – there are MANY companies (passport/visa expediters, concierge companies, ticket brokers) that sell expedited access to government or other queue-based services.

    As to your DMV example, right here I can pay someone $30 to do it for me. http://www.taskrabbit.com/tasks/dmv-auto-registration

    Is that unfair to the masses? No – it’s just another form of business, whether it’s a direct service, a buy-in, or a perk.

  35. Mr Post is correct and anyone defending the “priority lines” is a communist.

    The priority treated citizens are getting the taxpayer funded government provided security hand out redistributed to them personally when the entire population is paying for it. It’s exactly the same as a welfare handout to the disadvantaged at everyone’s expense.

    It’s ironic that the same citizens who bemoan economic redistribution from the wealthy to the poor are so adamant that getting more broad based tax funded TSA workers and resources assigned per passenger to their class than another is somehow capitalism at work.

    Unless each passenger pays the government directly for each security service the government provides and adding additional screeners at the front of the line you are in is done by market forces (being able to outbid the other line for every new TSA screener and aditional line being opened to the class of passenger line you are standing in), this is truly a government hand out to the elite-class passengers. If there are a hundred people in the slow lane to every one person in the elite lane, the slow lane waiters if given the opportunity could easily make it unaffordable for the extra fast lane only screener and equiopment to go there, 5 dollars extra from each passenger in the slow lane would mean an extra $500 for the elite folks to get their lane’s preferential treatment per passenger, and they not only would not pay that, more than half of them don’t even pay the airlines for the wide seats and extra service, the airlines give it to them because they fly often, reducing their profit on that person’s seat miles compared to other coach passengers who fly infrequently.

  36. The “haves” fly private. Want to go to the head of the line? Order a wheelchair. $2 tip. EWR wont left me srand in the shorter regular line since my boarding pass says 1k. Focus on the real issue: TSA needs to take airline reservation data and staff based on traffic flow.

  37. Just take the premium line if there is no one enforcing who is using it. The TSA agent isn’t going to enforce it. They are security, not queue management. They do not get involved if people are crowding ahead in the normal lines.

  38. What we have here…is…a federal agency providing a service on an unequal basis, as a consequence of some monetary consideration provided not to them, but to a THIRD PARTY – the corporation that owns the airplane. That’s why it’s wrong. The analogy is not ‘paying the extra fee for expedited passport processing,’ the analogy is walking into the DMV and saying, “I just bought a 600-series Mercedes, so I get to cut to the front of the line ahead of the rest of you slobs.” Priority screening has nothing to do with pre-check, or any vetting program; these are a separate idea based on SECURITY pre-screening. It arguably has nothing to do with how frequently you fly, either, since you may or may NOT be a frequent flyer; the fact that you’ve bought that first-class ticket indicates ONLY that you have the money to afford a first-class ticket. Aside from that, the TSA does not know you from Adam. Why should you be ENTITLED to preferential treatment? The whole thing is indefensible, and STINKS. Here’s how the conversation should play out… Airline representative (after walking Mr. Jones to the Priority line): “Good morning! This is Mr. Jones. He just bought a first-class ticket to L.A.! We’d like to help him get on the plane just as quickly as possible, because he’s such a good customer!” TSA screener: “Wow. That’s great. I don’t care what Mr. Jones just bought. He didn’t buy anything from us, and we’re in the business of enforcing regulations in accordance with something called ‘equal protection under the law’…so Mr. Jones can just carry his ass back to the end of the regular screening line.”

  39. I’m late to this post, but I wonder, what would happen at an airport where the Airline doesn’t own the terminal?

    In essence, it’s easy to argue that at a Delta owned terminal in NYC, they could arrange the security lines however they like. It’s ultimately trespass not to follow Delta’s rules.

    But at government owned terminal like in Atlanta, what is the justification for the Sky Priority line? And if they physically tried to stop me from using it, wouldn’t that simply be assault?

    My thinking is that in essence, Delta understands this eventuality and its one of the reasons they love owning their own private terminals at public airports when they can. But in a situation with the design of Atlanta where the same security checkpoints are used to access all gates, I’m not sure there’s much they could do.

    I recently tested this by simply walking through the line before they could stop me to verify, but I was wondering if the agent had pushed the issue, what would they do?

    Priority Lanes piss me off not because they reward good customers, but because they frequently reward the wrong customers. I barely ever qualify for Gold status anymore, but my tickets are purchased last minute, sometimes on the way to the airport, and usually cost more than most of the people who are flying business or first. But its not just about dollars, its about miles, whatever that means.

    If I pay $1024 for a full Y last minute one way ticket from JFK-LAX, I’m damn sure not waiting on the slow security line at the airlines request. They can try to bar me from that line all they want, I’m going for it. And I’m damn sure going to feel more entitled than the fat retired doctor from Savannah who got his $98 flight upgraded to business for free.

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