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Nobody likes getting stuck in security at the airport. Your gate is in sight, but there's nothing you can do about it. And what's up with the guy zipping through the lane on the left while you're stuck in a seemingly endless conga line?

Airport security lines may be getting shorter, but that doesn't help you if you're stuck in an unexpected half-hour-long wait. Fortunately, there are new ways to predict how long checkpoint lines are going to be, and some new strategies for dodging them.

That speedy guy on the left, for instance, probably has a CLEAR card -- a new kind of pass that lets you use special security lines at the airport. But even if you don't want to buy a $99 security pass, you can still inject some predictability into your airport planning using the Internet, your cell phone, and common sense.

On the TSA's website at http://waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html you can check historical wait times for your airport terminal over the past month, and plan accordingly. Want to double check right as you get to the airport? Send a text message from your cell phone to the number 44636 with the word "wait" and your airport code (for instance, "wait jfk") and you'll get up-to-the-minute wait times.

"Over the past two years we just haven't seen the drastic wait times that people would expect," said TSA spokeswoman Lara Uselding. "We've been doing this for five years now, and we're getting good at it."

To find the worst security delays in the US, we crunched the TSA's numbers for the critical 2007 holiday period, looking for lines averaging 15 minutes or longer. We came out with a measure of "checkpoint-hours." Each unit counts for one hour at one checkpoint where people were stuck on line for 15 minutes or more. The ten worst offenders were:

  • Miami: 134
  • JFK: 114
  • Dallas-Fort Worth: 100
  • Tampa: 68
  • Chicago O'Hare: 58
  • Minneapolis: 49
  • Fort Lauderdale: 45
  • Philadelphia: 44
  • San Diego: 41
  • Las Vegas: 38
  • Newark: 35

So what's holding these airports up? Since this is one month's data, sometimes it's unique circumstances. For instance, take Las Vegas. I know what caused the Las Vegas lines, because I was in them. Every January, the Consumer Electronics Show floods Las Vegas with 150,000 business travelers, a great number of whom try to get out of Vegas on the same bunch of flights from the airport's C and D gates over a three-day period. All of those people have laptops. Some, including me, have multiple laptops. Think about it.

Dallas had a similar fluke. A December cold snap saddled Dallasites with unaccustomed outerwear, and, well, Texans don't quite know what to do with coats. Then an airline mix-up dumped a large number of people into the system, all tagged for secondary screening. Cue the slow lines.

Some delays are more habitual. In Miami, the north terminal is under massive construction, with building expected to last several years into the future. There's only so much the TSA can do when the airport is being rebuilt around them.

Many of JFK's delays, meanwhile, could be traced to holiday traffic at the international terminal, which primarily serves jumbo jets going to exotic destinations. During December, those jumbos are full of families heading home to Guyana and Uzbekistan with massive quantities of presents. But I've had trouble getting through that particular checkpoint, known as Terminal 4-B, on the best of days; at any given time, they're trying to screen an entire assembled United Nations.

Cutting The Lines

If you're sick of security delays -- or you have to go through JFK's Terminal 4-B way too often -- there are two ways around them. One costs money. The other doesn't.

At some airports, you just have to be smart. Often if you see a long security line, there will be a much shorter line just a walk away. Take Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Each of its terminals has three security checkpoints. But the center checkpoint -- near gates 20 or 21 -- often has much longer lines than the others. You just have to walk to one end of the terminal to cut the lines.

JFK's JetBlue terminal, Terminal 6, has security lines at its west and east sides that both lead to the same place. Ditto for Denver's Jeppesen Terminal, which has two security checkpoints, both of which lead to the same underground train -- yet the south checkpoint is often busier than the north one. Sometimes the alternate line may not be immediately visible, so remember, you can always ask someone who works there.

Timing is also important. "Mornings on a Monday, evenings on a Monday, mornings and evenings on Fridays, that's when you have business travelers going out," Uselding said. Ironically, the best times to fly to avoid airline delays -- 5-9am-- are the worst times for security line delays, according to TSA and airport officials. At Dallas-Fort Worth, they tried a promotion giving away $5 food vouchers to travelers who showed up between noon and 2 pm for afternoon flights, said TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley.

"If you hit off-peak hours, it's much less stressful for families, and DFW has a lot of amenities for families -- play areas, restaurants, that sort of thing," she said.

But enough business travelers (and a few frequent leisure travelers) have gotten fed-up enough to buy something called a Verified Traveler card, which puts you in a special, much shorter line at 14 airports. The cards are sold and the checkpoints are managed by three different companies, but they all work at all Registered Traveler locations, and they all cost $100/year.

The largest and most well-known of the Registered Traveler firms is Steven Brill's Clear (www.flyclear.com), and it works like this: travelers complete an online application providing specific points of personal information including name, addresses for the previous five years, birth date, social security number, driver's license number and a valid credit card (you're not charged the $99 fee until your application is approved).

Once your application has been screened against no-fly lists, outstanding warrants and other security measures, you'll be issued a clear plastic card that holds a chip containing your information. When you get to security at a participating airport, you'll insert your card into a slot and place your finger on a scanner to read your print -- when the information matches up, you're cleared to cut to the front of the security line. You'll still have to follow all the procedures-of-the-day like removing your shoes and walking through the x-ray machine, but Clear promises lines will be no longer than five minutes.

That predictability is the main selling point for the CLEAR card, said Cindy Rosenthal, VIP's vice president of communications. The card is clearly catching on, with nearly 60,000 people signing up last year alone and a year-to-year renewal rate of 90%.

"It's the knowing, making it a little bit less stressful, a little bit more predictable," Rosenthal said.

That predictability sold Henry Morgan, a sales manager from Orlando who's been using the CLEAR card for three years now. "My originating flights are always early in the morning, and you don't know if you're going to get a line that's 15 minutes or an hour and 15 minutes," he said. "I know exactly how long it takes to get through CLEAR, so I can spend a little more time at home, and a little more time sleeping."

CLEAR's major weakness right now is its lack of coverage: it's only available in parts of 14 airports. Of the top ten security-delayed airports we listed above, only JFK and Newark are covered. Atlanta and Washington, D.C. may get registered-traveler programs soon, Rosenthal said. But it's up to the airports to come and solicit them.

VIP has also been working with the TSA in trying to develop technology to make security screening faster and less annoying. Take shoe scanning (and never mind that nobody has ever had a successful shoe bomb). VIP has been testing shoe-scanning machines for a while that don't require you to take off your shoes -- but the TSA rejected them, so it's now back to the drawing board. The TSA, according to a press release, are working on new X-ray technologies called millimeter wave and backscatter which should speed up secondary screening, the dreaded pat-downs. But they aren't quite ready for full deployment, the TSA says.

"It's still very important that passengers remember to come to the airport with plenty of time," Uselding says.

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