Cleared for Takeoff

A new partnership between United Airlines and security identity firm Clear shows why leaders need to partner with disruptors if they want to create first-class experiences.

Airport security lines are the worst. They’re long, tedious, and tiresome, especially during peak travel times. But a new partnership by United Airlines could ease some of that—and in the process show an agility flare that this and other industries will need more of in today’s age of disruption.

United announced on Monday that it’s buying a stake in security identity firm Clear to bring more biometric screening kiosks to several of its airport hubs. This means that more United fliers should be able to get through airport check-in faster by using their eyes and fingerprints. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee a hassle-free TSA screening, but the partnership may show the growing value of alliances between traditional companies and start-up disruptors. “If they have Clear, they can go even faster,” says Michael Bell, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Civil Aviation Practice. “It’s the battle for the high-value customer.”

From lounges to dedicated check-ins, major airlines continue to invest in ways to make their customers’ lives easier—and, ultimately, attract those high-spending fliers, Bell says. United’s deal with Clear is part of those broader efforts and shows that the airline’s leadership is thinking about disruption, innovation, and agility in building their business, rather than being entrenched in what has been. They’re more concerned with what is the art of the possible,”  says Radhika Papandreou, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm's North American Travel, Hospitality, and Leisure practice

Still, whether or not United’s partnership with Clear is a significant threat to competitors is yet to be seen, experts say. After all, Delta, United’s biggest rival, first inked a deal with the biometric screening firm three years ago and has installed Clear kiosks at several dozen of its airport hubs. Plus, the carrier’s demonstration of agility is limited; Clear is only available at less than 1% of US public airports. The new partnership means that just a handful of others—Chicago O’Hare, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, and Newark Liberty—will receive kiosks. That’s not enough to make a big splash, experts say. “Clear is not everywhere,” says Bell, “so the benefits are not as good for others.”

In any case, the move is a key step toward converting a disruption—biometric screening—into a threat competitors must follow. “In order for [other airlines] to acquire new customers over time, they will have to follow suit,” Papandreou says.