The Transportation Security Administration can’t stop talking about its new Pre-Check program, which offers air travelers preferred screening status if they submit to a background check.
But the agency seems less eager to have a conversation about the tens of thousands of passengers who lose their Pre-Check privileges, sometimes for petty offenses that date back decades.
They’re frequent air travelers like Tim Pickering, who a few weeks ago noticed that the little Pre-Check icon on his boarding pass had disappeared.
Pickering, who works for a medical evacuation service in O’Fallon, Mo., and received his Pre-Check benefits through Global Entry, a trusted traveler program run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, sent two polite e-mails to the TSA through its website. He received a form response suggesting his status had been randomly and temporarily removed.
Having TSA Pre-Check status is no guarantee of using the faster lines, where you can wear shoes and go through metal detectors instead of full-body scanners.
“I would like to find out what has occurred to seemingly block me from the program,” he says.
The answers provide a troubling picture about how easy it is to lose your Pre-Check status and how hard it is reclaim it.
The TSA is understandably reluctant to discuss who is added to its “disqualified” list and how.
“TSA maintains a list of individuals who are disqualified from receiving expedited screening for some period of time — or permanently — because they have been involved in violations of security regulations of sufficient severity or frequency,” says TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.
He says passengers can be disqualified for having a loaded firearm in carry-on baggage at the checkpoint, for example.
A search of the TSA website shows a more detailed list of infractions. It includes “non-physical” interference with the screening process or improper use of airport access facilities.
In other words, it’s possible to have your Pre-Check status revoked for something as minor as hurting a TSA screener’s feelings or inadvertently using an exit door to access the terminal. Worse, the agency won’t always tell you if you’re on the list; in Pickering’s case, he had to notice his downgraded status and received a satisfactory answer only after I inquired on his behalf.
A letter sent to Pickering by the TSA’s Office of the Chief Risk Officer noted that in February, he had committed a violation involving unloaded firearm magazines at a Raleigh-Durham International Airport checkpoint.
“Based on this violation, you will be ineligible for TSA Pre-Check consideration for a period of one year from the date of the violation,” the risk officer noted.
Pickering isn’t pleased.
“It seems to be purely punitive,” he says. “Be a good citizen for a year and we’ll give your privileges back smacks of a kangaroo court and arbitrary decision-making without our right of due process in order to deprive me of a benefit.”
He’s hardly alone. A retired executive who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and doesn’t want her name used says she was tentatively approved for Pre-Check status earlier this year. During her interview, she revealed that 50 years ago, she’d been arrested on charges of stealing a $25 necklace at a store. The government employee conducting her interview said it would “not be a problem.”