Verified Identity Pass, a company that promised to speed passengers through airport security checkpoints for an annual fee, has shut down, leaving some frequent fliers looking for options to avoid long screening lines and wondering what will happen to the personal information they gave the company.
The company said it wasn't able to negotiate a deal with its creditors, and its Clear fast-lane security check service stopped operations abruptly late Monday. More than a quarter million customers won't get refunds of membership fees that ranged from $178 to $199 per year.
"At the present time, because of its financial condition, Verified Identity Pass, Inc. cannot issue refunds," the company said on its Web site.
Some members received e-mails about the closure, while others found out at the airport when they discovered Clear lanes were cordoned off.
Lois Easton, an education consultant from Boulder, Colo., was turned away by two TSA officials Tuesday morning from a Clear lane at Denver International Airport. She was headed on a 10-day business trip with stops in Newark, N.J., and Tallahassee.
"I did buy a three-year membership, so I'm not very happy about all of this," Easton said. Nearby, workers were dismantling three Clear screening machines.
"I travel a lot for business, often every week," Easton added. "It's in enough of the airports I'm in so it's worth it. It saves me a lot of time, a lot of stress."
Clear was founded in 2003 by Steven Brill, the businessman behind media ventures such as CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine. It originated with a program set up by the Transportation Security Administration called Registered Traveler, intended to shrink swollen security lines in the wake of 9-11. Clear operated at about 20 airports.
But in a statement Tuesday, the TSA seemed to distance itself from the venture.
"The Clear program was a market-driven, private sector venture, offered in partnership with airports and airlines in certain locations," TSA spokesman Jonathan Allen said in a statement. He offered no further comment.
Brill, who left the company in February when a group of investors took control of the company, didn't provide any specifics about why the company shut down.
"I can only speculate about the causes of the company's demise," he said. "What I do know for sure, however, is that the need for intelligent risk management hasn't diminished and that programs like Clear should have a role in our future."
The TSA tried to balance the desire to cut wait times and ease travelers' stress with the importance of ensuring proper screening, but it still required travelers to go through the same security procedures as everyone else in line.
Now that the service is defunct, some wonder what will happen to the personal information held by Verified. The company's Clear service required members' fingerprints, iris scans and other identifying traits.
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Chuck Allen, 49, of Duluth, Ga., said he is concerned about all the personal information he released to get his Clear membership card.
"Who owns that now?" he asked. "The scary thing is, I wonder if (all of my information is) up for sale. I mean, who knows?"
The company said on its Web site that all personal data has been secured according to TSA standards. It said it "will continue to secure such information and will take appropriate steps to delete the information."
When Allen got an e-mail Monday night letting him know about the company's shut down, he was "ticked off."
"My first thought was, I bought a three-year membership, which was a great deal at the time," he said. "Now, I guess I'll get no refund from that and it's going to cost me significant time each week."
Last year, the TSA suspended the Clear program temporarily after a laptop containing pre-enrollment records of about 33,000 customers was lost at San Francisco International Airport.
TSA requires Registered Traveler service providers, including Clear, to encrypt files containing participants' sensitive personal information.
Air Transport Association spokesman David Castelveter said the trade group didn't see how Clear and similar services aid travelers.
"It provided no security benefit, and it charged you for what the TSA and the airlines gave you at no cost," he said.
Most airlines have shorter lines or special services for their elite frequent fliers, while the TSA also provides some measures of its own at certain airports to speed security checks.
"The whole process today has greatly improved since 9-11," Castelveter said. "It has been streamlined, there are better checkpoints and travelers are just more savvy these days."
But some frequent fliers say the service helped them to save a lot of time.
In Atlanta, frequent flier Louis Wall said he enjoyed the relatively hassle-free process of going through the Clear lanes at the airport.
"I am sorry to see it go — I've enjoyed the Clear lanes and was planning to renew it," he said. "Whatever you can do as a traveler to take the hassle out is worth it. I hope that someone else will come a long and pick up the service."
Loren Volk, an Atlanta-based consultant, also said he will miss the service. He's been a member for two months.
"I've had two hip replacements and I like being able to go through fast," the 62-year-old said. When asked if he expected to be refunded his membership fee, he replied "I'm not counting on it."
Volk said falling back on elite frequent flier status or other benefits isn't an option for him.
"I quit those when I got the Clear card," he said.