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.