First-Class Fast Lane

Passengers on Southwest Airlines, which offers just one class of service, wait in long lines for check-in and security at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Competitors offer first-class passengers shorter, dedicated lines, a practice that's growing in popularity nationwide.
Passengers on Southwest Airlines, which offers just one class of service, wait in long lines for check-in and security at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Competitors offer first-class passengers shorter, dedicated lines, a practice that's growing in popularity nationwide. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

DENVER -- Harvey Koshik is not an "elite" airline traveler. He learned this last week when he was turned away from a security line at Denver International Airport. A guard checking identification and boarding passes informed him that the line was only for first-class travelers.

"We knew something was up because the line was so short," said Koshik, who was flying coach. He and his five traveling companions went to the end of the other security line, which snaked back and forth nine times before it reached the checkpoint. "I don't like it. I think everybody should be treated the same."

Across the country, "elite" lines are making a comeback at U.S. airports. The lines, which deliver high-paying travelers right to the checkpoint without waiting, were common before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the federal government eliminated them when it took over security from the airlines. In allowing the lines to return, the Transportation Security Administration has irked travelers who say that the airlines' class system should not extend to airport security, which is paid for by all taxpayers.

The lines are operated by the airlines -- not the government, which is responsible only for the actual screening process. "The physical rope and stanchions and the real estate they occupy is the responsibility of the airlines or, in some cases, the airports," said TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. "The TSA area begins just past the ticket checkers. From that point forward, we treat them all the same."

The Registered Traveler program, which allows handpicked frequent fliers to register a fingerprint and iris scan at some airports in exchange for a pass to the front of the line, has been stalled at the agency for more than a year. Airports, airlines and the TSA have been unable to agree on a way to expand the program.

Airline and airport executives said they have been able to set up the new lines, in some cases, by working with airports and the federal government to expand security checkpoints. In Los Angeles, for example, American Airlines spent $1 million to reconfigure the terminal it leases so that the Transportation Security Administration could add a few more security lanes. The extra lanes afforded the airline some extra space for its new line for first-class travelers. American's first-class line begins with its own escalator on the opposite side of the other security line.

US Airways said it was able to open a first-class line at Reagan National Airport four months ago, after the TSA added two new security lanes.

A first-class line works like this: Off to the side of the long, zigzag line for most travelers is a shorter, straight line that zips to the checkpoint, often accompanied by a sign indicating that the line is only for "premier" or "gold club" travelers. Sometimes the special lines are only for airlines' exclusive club members who fly a certain number of miles each year or pay several hundred dollars a year to use posh airport lounges. Other times the signs indicate the line is only for first- or business-class travelers.

Airlines say that their privileged customers love the perk, but they admit that others aren't so thrilled. "We hear equal sentiments from both sides" about the special lines, said US Airways spokesman David A. Castelveter. But the airline still believes it's worth offering, he said.

Passengers on some airlines never get to use the fast lanes. Road warriors who travel on Northwest, Continental and United can speed through the special security line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, but the same travelers on Independence Air -- which does not offer first-class service -- get stuck in the slow lane. At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Southwest Airlines passengers at the new terminal must all funnel through the same checkpoint, but first-class travelers on Delta and American get to skip to the front at another terminal. Dulles International Airport does not offer special perks at the checkpoint for any travelers.

The privilege, for those who get it, is incredibly valuable. Wait times in the standard security lines at National can be as long as 50 minutes, according to the TSA's Web site. On average, getting through security around the country takes less than 12 minutes, but the lines can be unpredictable. The TSA does not list wait times for the first-class lines.

Inside the exclusive American Airlines Admirals Club at Los Angeles International Airport, Mike Shires relaxed on a leather chair, enjoying a few moments of peace before his flight back home to Chicago. He flies 200,000 miles a year on business and he enjoys the perks that come with being a frequent flier. "I'd have to put 30 minutes back into my schedule" without the special security line, Shires said.

"There's a perk that comes with all the miles we travel," he said.

Airport and airline officials said they convinced the TSA that creating special lines speeds all travelers through. By separating seasoned passengers who are familiar with security rules from vacationers who don't know they have to remove their shoes, the officials say, everyone moves through security more quickly.

"It took a while for TSA to get away from the idea that every airline ticket is the same" and should be treated equally, said one airline manager at an airport who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by his company to talk to a reporter. "Our position is, we control the front of the line and they control the checkpoint," he said.

The TSA, which receives about $4 billion annually to staff and provide equipment for airport checkpoints, said that it allows airports to configure lines leading to security checkpoints because federal dollars go toward only the checkpoint equipment and screeners -- not the lines themselves. The agency said that if screening equipment is available, it will allow it to be used just for first-class passengers -- so long as it doesn't slow down the other line.

But some passengers got irked by the setup recently at O'Hare's Terminal 2, where one security line designated for Northwest and Continental first-class passengers was separated by a rope and funneled to a single magnetometer and X-ray machine. Meanwhile, two lines of other travelers had to merge into one long line for a second metal detector.

"What's the deal here?" asked Jill Horist, as she and her 11-year-old son waited in the slow lane. "It's this kind of thing that's annoying. If you pay a couple extra bucks, you get a shorter line? Everyone pays for security."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company