Lois Easton showed up at Denver International Airport expecting her usual quick trip through airport security. Instead, she was turned away as screening machines were dismantled around her.
She is one of about a quarter-million customers who paid up to $199 a year and turned over detailed personal information in exchange for breezing to the gate — until the company that runs the program, known as Clear, abruptly shut down Tuesday.
At airports across America, frequent fliers like Easton were denied the fast lane and left to join the back of the longer, snaking security lines everyone else uses. And they won't even get their money back.
"I did buy a three-year membership, so I'm not very happy about all of this," said Easton, an education consultant from Boulder, Colo.
The company, Verified Identity Pass, said it pulled the plug on the Clear program because it couldn't negotiate a deal with its creditors. It could file for bankruptcy.
Some customers received e-mails with the news, while others found out when they discovered Clear lanes at the airport were cordoned off.
Clear was founded in 2003 by Steven Brill, the businessman behind media ventures such as CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine. It operated at about 20 airports. Brill left the company in February when a group of investors took control of the company.
"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."
Clear operated under a program called Registered Traveler, set up by the Transportation Security Administration to shrink swollen security lines after 9-11. TSA seemed to distance itself from the venture Tuesday.
"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.
Two other companies, Vigilant and FLO, offer similar service, but they are far smaller.
Clear still required travelers to go through the same security procedures as everyone else in line, but the lines were shorter. Another Clear member at the Denver airport Tuesday, Todd Owen, said the program typically shaved half an hour off his time going through security.
To join, passengers had to submit to fingerprinting and iris scans, plus turn over information including Social Security numbers that the company shared with the TSA. Verified pledged on its Web site to "continue to secure such information" according to TSA standards and eventually delete it.
"Who owns that now?" asked Chuck Allen, a Clear member who was heading for a flight at the Atlanta airport Tuesday. "The scary thing is, I wonder if (all of my information is) up for sale. I mean, who knows?"
Last year, the TSA suspended the Clear program temporarily after a laptop containing records for about 33,000 customers was lost at San Francisco International Airport. TSA requires the companies providing the Registered Traveler service to encrypt sensitive personal information.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said Clear customers should be protected by the courts in the event of a bankruptcy to ensure their information is not sold or transferred to creditors.
Most airlines have shorter lines or special services for their most 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," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association trade group. "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," said Louis Wall, a frequent flier at the Atlanta airport. "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."