Elite Security Lines Bug Some but Not Others

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Travelers love them or hate them, but few are without an opinion about the special lines most airlines maintain to whisk their best customers through security checkpoints.

"It's ludicrous," a visibly irritated Charles Gresham said as he and his family prepared to enter the regular security line at Dallas/Fort Worth airport's new international terminal.

The Greshams' line wasn't particularly long. But watching elite members of American Airlines' AAdvantage program move briskly through their own line to effectively jump ahead was a bitter pill to swallow.

"I can see the people who pay for first-class tickets getting better seats," said Gresham, who was headed to Germany on an unexpected and temporary military deployment. "But this is security. We should all be even here."

VIP security lines may violate the egalitarian sensibilities of some Americans, but they've become a permanent fixture of post-9/11 air travel. Now they're generating more debate as travelers fret about extended airport wait times after the thwarted London bomb plot.

The two-tiered treatment of passengers at the checkpoints is also an element in the debate over the government's pending expansion of the Registered Traveler program. That's the program in which travelers can pay a fee -- about $100 -- and submit to a background check to use separate, faster checkpoints.

Only one airport, Orlando, offers the program today. But it could grow to about 20 over the next year.

Privileges add up

So add special security check-in lines to the other privileges of elite fliers: priority seating, first boarding, coupons for free drinks and the like. Details of the workings of airlines' VIP security lines vary.

Typically, airlines offer them at airports where they have a large presence but not where they are only bit players.

Delta Air Lines, for example, has elite security lines at its big hub in Atlanta, and in 19 other big airports, according to spokeswoman Betsy Talton. But it doesn't have them at Houston, St. Louis or Philadelphia, where its presence is small.

Typically, frequent fliers who log 50,000 miles with a carrier can use the VIP lines. Some airlines allow those who fly as little as 15,000 miles a year to use them. Travelers who buy first- or business-class tickets also get to use them. In some cases, so do elite-level frequent fliers in programs run by carriers that have a marketing alliance with the airline being used.

There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions. Discounters Southwest and JetBlue simply can't offer elite-security queues. To do so would violate their iconoclastic, single-class operating philosophies.

"All of our passengers are elite," says Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart.

Saving time

John Fischer, a consulting-firm CEO who logs more than 200,000 air miles from his base in Houston, estimates that using elite security lines saves him five to 10 minutes a trip.

"Time is money," says Fischer. "It's the travelers who don't fly often who take awhile to get through. They are bringing everything but the kitchen sink."

Many high-mileage travelers say elite-traveler security lines are just part of how the American economic system works.

"I pay for the right to preferred treatment," says frequent flier and first-class traveler Saul Klein, president of InternetCrusade, a San Diego tech company.

Lori Stumpf, a Washington, D.C., consultant, feels a little guilty every time she goes to an airport and gets in the short security line reserved for elite travelers of either of her two main airlines, United or US Airways.

But not guilty enough to go stand in the sometimes much longer lines used by most travelers. Airlines, she says, justifying her decision, still don't do enough to reward their most loyal high-mileage, high-dollar travelers like her.

"Those of us who are elite just get slightly less (grief) than the others, and slightly -- very slightly -- better customer service," she says.

For its part, TSA wants no part of the debate over VIP security lines.

It simply screens travelers in the order the airlines present them, TSA says.

"That real estate in front of the checkpoint is owned by the airlines," says spokeswoman Amy Von Walter. "Our obligation is to do the screening efficiently and to keep the wait times to a minimum."

At DFW, travelers in the regular lines mostly seemed comfortable with, or at least resigned to, the existence of VIP security lines.

"It doesn't bother me," said Mike Okoli, a businessman from Plano, Texas, as he got into the regular security line at DFW. "If I was in a rush, maybe. But I guess you get what you pay for."

Greg Smith of Redding, Calif., who was flying home from Texas with his daughter and father, said he usually doesn't let standing in the longer security lines for non-elite travelers bother him. But when he's running out of time, sometimes it does.

But Smith thinks he has a better idea of how to organize the checkpoint lines: "If they just had different lines for people based on how soon their flight is leaving, it would work so much smoother."