Is it too easy to lose the TSA’s “trust”?

The government trusts you ... but only so far. / Photo by Smikek - Flickr
A new Transportation Security Administration initiative that lets trusted travelers bypass the airport screening line is on the verge of an ambitious expansion. By the end of the year, PreCheck, a government program that offers expedited screening to those who submit to an initial background check, is expected to be available in 35 airports.

Although many air travelers are fixated on how to score a coveted clearance, which would give them access to an express lane where they don’t have to remove their shoes or liquids or unpack their laptops, some are already starting to worry about retaining their PreCheck status. It might be harder than you think, and the implications for the future of travel are troubling.

Ximena Gonzalez knows. Last month, she contacted me about the mysterious loss of her Sentri status. Sentri is similar to PreCheck; it allows preapproved, low-risk travelers to use special express lanes at the U.S.-Mexican border. In fact, it’s so similar to PreCheck that U.S. citizens who participate in this 17-year-old program operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are automatically eligible for PreCheck.

Gonzalez, a Mexican citizen who lives in Tijuana, used Sentri regularly whenever she traveled to the United States. Then in February, a customs agent informed her that she and her entire family would have to surrender their cards, but he wouldn’t explain why.

A subsequent revocation letter from the government listed general reasons for stripping users of their Sentri benefits: for being convicted of a criminal offense or having pending criminal charges; for lying on the Sentri application; for violating customs or immigration laws. But none seemed to apply to her. “I don’t have any kind of criminal record and never have broken any law,” she told me. “I don’t even have any traffic fines.”

I suggested that she appeal her revocation to the agency’s ombudsman; the CBP denied her appeal, again without citing a specific reason. I contacted the CBP on her behalf, and it gave her a phone number to call. That proved to be yet another dead end, so I contacted the agency again.

Finally, we were able to arrange a meeting between Gonzalez and an agency representative. The agent explained that her record is clean but that “someone I know has gotten into trouble or is under investigation and that it affects me,” she said.

Gonzalez can’t figure out who is in trouble, and the CBP won’t offer more details. She is, for lack of a better term, guilty by association. “I feel like I’m exactly where it all started,” she added. “I don’t know what’s happening and can’t defend myself, because I don’t know who it is.”

The CBP representative also suggested that her revocation is permanent, meaning that from now on she will have to wait in a two-hour line with other tourists when she wants to cross the border.

What do Gonzalez’s troubles have to do with PreCheck, which launched as a pilot program in October and is in use at 12 airports today? A TSA spokesman confirmed that loss of any other E-ZPass-like government program for travelers, such as Sentri, Global Entry or Nexus, will have similar repercussions for their PreCheck membership. “If your card is revoked by CBP, you’re no longer eligible for PreCheck,” says Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman.

He declined to specify the reasons a traveler could be removed from the PreCheck list but said that the TSA offers a grievance process similar to the one used by people who have been placed on a terrorist watch list. The Travel Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, allows airline passengers to correct erroneous information in the Department of Homeland Security’s systems. The appeals process is outlined in a revocation letter, as it was for Gonzalez.

But these systems can be bureaucratic mazes. Consider what happened when Mary Ann Hoey inadvertently applied for the wrong program online; she’d meant to sign up for Global Entry but ended up clicking the Nexus button instead. (Global Entry lets you use a fast lane for U.S. Customs; Nexus allows you to expedite crossing the U.S.-Canadian border.)

Hoey, an education management professional in Chicago, phoned Global Entry, where a representative acknowledged that it’s a common problem for users to click on the wrong program on the agency’s Web site. But try as she might, she could not get a refund of her $50 application fee. One agency representative told her to write a letter. Another agreed to cancel her application but said that she couldn’t get her money back. “I felt like I had fallen into the government black hole, never to return,” she says.

I contacted the CBP on her behalf, and it refunded her $50.

I worry that thousands of air travelers who belong to PreCheck could suddenly find themselves cardless, with no idea how it happened. Sentri revokes about 2,000 cards a year, a number that has held relatively steady over the past five years.

Revocations such as Gonzalez’s raise other questions. If she’s off the Sentri list, can her family members still fly within the United States, or will they be flagged at the airport and given an extra screening, or maybe even turned away?

The message is a little confusing — and troubling. Some travelers are more trusted than others. But why? The government doesn’t have to say. Try to get an answer, and you might find yourself in a bureaucratic labyrinth from which there’s no escape.

As the TSA moves toward what it calls an “intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to security,” maybe it’s worth asking how intelligent some of its new systems really are.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    Very interesting…and quite scary to be honest. 

    Guilt by association and they won’t even tell her who the guilty party is so that she could prove/disprove that she knows this person? That’s the most frightening part. 

  • BrianInPVD

    I think this story is conflating CBP and TSA.  At this point we have no evidence that if she were to apply for PreCheck that she would be rejected.  Nor do we have information that the TSA or CBP use similar criteria for revocation.

    Losing PreCheck status is not the same as losing the right to enter a country.  You lose PreCheck status, the worst thing that happens is you miss your flight.  And with random, unpredictable security screenings, there’s not guarantee that you won’t have to undergo “enhanced screening” with PreCheck anyway.CBP has the responsibility to protect our borders.  Every government has the right to secure its borders and set rules about who can be let in and who cannot.  While the U.S. cannot deny entry to a U.S. citizen, it can deny entry to non-U.S. citizens.  In this case, the OP isn’t being denied entry, just denied expedited entry.Unfair–sure.  Bad for cross-border relations? Sure. Unfounded? probably.  Legal?  Unfortunately. 

  • Rose Arnold

    How you one possibly answer your question of the day if we don’t even know why people lose the TSA’s trust.  Nevertheless, your story is terrifying.  I suspect it will only get worse because most people will go along with anything.

  • mytimetotravel

    Yet another incentive for the relocation I’m considering. To a country where I won’t have to put up with this madness just because I want to travel.

  • cjr001

    I laugh at the notion of a “grievance process”. Said process is absolutely USELESS when it comes to ANY complaint with the TSA, much less a real threat to one’s ability to travel like the no-fly list.

    Everything TSA does is troubling, and this is yet another example.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I found this particular poll question to be interesting.  It insinuates we had TSAs trust to begin with.

    This story doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  While it’s the Federal Government ( or rather its founding fathers) who gave us the Constitution, in particular the part about innocent until proven guilty, but it’s the Feds who operate under the rule of “guilty until proven innocent”.

  • Jill Brennan

    There should be a registry for the growing number of people with metal in their body like hip/knee replacements.  I am subject to a full pat down whenever I travel.  It is a waste of everyone’s time.

  • Miami510

    Homeland Security, CBP, TSA and other agencies charged with protecting borders and transportation, were set up relatively quickly.  As with the older, intelligence agencies, (CIA, DIA, ONI, FBI, NSA, etc.) their workings are often arcane and shrouded from the public view.  When it comes to a citizen being denied something, there ought to be a court to resolve the matter. 
    I have less sympathy for Ms Gonzalez than I would for a citizen.  Foreigners don’t and shouldn’t have the same “rights” as a citizen.  I’ve read of similar cases involving citizens, who seem trapped in a Kafkaesque scenario. 
    The most egregious example involved the late Senator Teddy Kennedy, who was denied boarding by TSA because his name was on a “no fly” list.  As a Senator, this made the front page news, and the problem was quickly acknowledged and remedied; it seems there was an Irish terrorist by the same name.  Anyone else would have received no explanation. 
    The problem is a list’s reliance on what is known as raw intelligence.  Raw intelligence is a collection of information on someone that could be rumors, passing remarks, unsubstantiated accusations, and any type of reported association.  I had a friend, who at one point because of his job, had access to raw intelligence.  He found a file his father’s name.  It seems his father at one time owned an office building and one of hundreds of tenants was a member of a known criminal family.
    Raw intelligence is a necessary part of investigative agencies.  When it comes to using that raw information to deny a citizens rights without recourse is wrong.  It smacks of societies like Cuba, the former East Germany, China and other repressive societies.     

  • frostysnowman

    I didn’t vote because I don’t think anything like a PreCheck program should even exist.

  • Extramail

    Government at its finest? Too bad she wasn’t a GSA employee . . .

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    The TSA is a bigger joke that the US economy & US politicians (the best money can buy).

    Seriously, if anyone wants to stear tourists away from the USA, all another tourist authority has to say is something to the effect …

    so you like the rubber glove treatment at US airports, bend over !!!

    When are you Americans going to wake up ?

    You can’t afford to lose one tourist, let alone the huge numbers who are going elsewhere, where a lot more tourist friendly.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    sounds like th dodgy express lane will end up longer than normal queues.

    If express lane are indeed express, then you’ll end up with riots at airports, as people won’t wait, especially Australians who aren’t into queues (or lines as you call them) & for what ?

    The TSA doesn’t make air travel 1% safer, just MUCH more inconvenient.

    Wake up USA, you’re country is going down the toilet & soon the only people who’ll want to go to the US will be poor Mexicans & poor central & south Americans, who seem to have no trouble crossing the border at all.

    By the way, the border with Canada is very easy to cross as well. There are 1000’s of kilometres where anyone can simply walk across, without any policing force being within 100kms.

  • karenboblett

    The Australians and Europeans I have talked to this year told me that they would never come through the US again either to change flights or for a visit because of what they went through with the TSA and the long lines.  I doubt if this is going to change their minds.

  • cjr001

    “I have less sympathy for Ms Gonzalez than I would for a citizen.”

    And yet, if you travel to a foreign country you would probably demand to be treated as an equal to a citizen of that country.

    The Constitution gives equal rights to ALL within our borders, and this country has gone to war with itself to prove it.

    The last thing anybody should do is find ways to make some groups of peoples less equal than others. After all, you never know when you might suddenly become a member of one of those groups.

  • BMG4ME

    I wonder whether being critical of the TSA on a web site is a good way to lose their trust?

  • 46Shasta19

    I don’t know the answer to that, but I do think that if they are going to revoke your right of passage, they should certainly be required to tell you why and you should have a right to challenge their decision and of course, it should be done ‘quickly’.

  • Lisa Simeone

    All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

  • LisaSux

    How is this any different than the other bureaucracies?   Oh that’s right, screamers like Lisa run around yelling the sky is falling….

  • wyoming1949

    Very similiar to the blacklisting of actors and writers, during the 1950s, for alleged Communist associations or sympathies.  The late Zero Mostel was one to have suffered this fate.

  • Campbell300

    Thanks alot for the post looks very intresting………..

    Cheap Flight To Milan

  • Sommer Gentry

    Targeting other board participants is immature and rude.  Learn to participate properly or go away.

  • cjr001

    Sooner or later, trolls like this one will get their turn with the blue rubber glove

  • IGoEverywhere

    I am proud to say that my Uncle was on Nixon’s enemies of the President list. I guess that I will never get a pass now. Don’t need it any way, as I have never been inconvenienced by the lines. It is horse puckies the way that these “warriors” need to have extra time to get to their booze. Change your own Depends and wait in line with the people that put you where you are today.

  • Dick Jordan

    So what exactly is an “intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to security,” a computer system that uses algorithms to decide if one gets to participate in one of these “fast track” airport or border clearance programs? if so, it sounds like “artificial intelligence” rather than human intelligence is what’s running these agencies.

  • Don Satow
  • Monkey

    I’m not above waiting in a two hour line, or going through the scanners, or getting a pat-down. Whatever they’ve gotta’ do to maintain safety. They’re not there to piss you off, they’re there to keep you alive. And while I fully admit there have been some pretty terrible tales of TSA behaving badly, in general I really wish everyone would back off and let them do what they do. Sure – it’s not fun. Sure – it takes a long time. Yes, they give people pat downs who would probably never pose a risk to national security. PROBABLY. But … they’re there to stay on the lookout for that ONE who MIGHT. That’s fine by me. I don’t want to be on the plane with the psycho that made it through security because too many whiners complained about the TSA. To me, the inconvenience I feel is totally worth the possibility of saving lives.

  • K

    I, along with my 15 month old (then) infant daughter was on one of the first coast-to-coast flights that resumed following 9/11. On this particular United flight going from Oakland to JFK, there were 5 dark-complected, robe-wearing, head-scarved individuals who were not stopped by security for their ‘random’ checks. These individuals boarded the airplane normally with no delay.  Yet they stopped me, a red-headed, blue-eyed, conservatively-dressed caucasian, American-born female in her late 20’s, with an obviously caucasian baby girl in a carseat.  They requested me to remove my daughter’s diaper to be sure I had not concealed ‘weapons’ inside the diaper, then tore off the cushioned cover of her carseat and turned everything upside down.  I believe from the very beginning of the so-called ‘increased security’, it’s a cover up to strip American Citizens of their right to privacy, demoralize us, and in general convert us from a proud people with a rich, diverse heritage to the sheeple that inhabit the lower tiers of society in countries ruled by rich despots that put down any protest to their totalitarian, enslaving rule with trumped up charges that lead to death camps and firing squads.  How many red-haired, caucasian females in their 20’s, carrying infants in carseats, were responsible for 9/11, exactly??