Is the TSA’s PreCheck program ready for what comes next?

By | March 2nd, 2014

The TSA's "randomizer" in action at Orlando International Airport on Feb. 28, 2014. This iPad-based application sends roughly every third passenger to the faster Pre-Check line. The rest are offered given a conventional screening. If the arrow points left, it's your lucky day.
The TSA’s “randomizer” in action at Orlando International Airport on Feb. 28, 2014. This iPad-based application sends roughly every third passenger to the faster Pre-Check line. The rest are offered given a conventional screening. If the arrow points left, it’s your lucky day.

The Transportation Security Administration’s vaunted new PreCheck system, which offers selected air travelers access to expedited security screening, is hurtling toward its first big test: a crowd of spring break passengers, quickly followed by a crush of inexperienced summer vacationers.

Although the agency assigned to protect U.S. transportation systems says that it’s ready, some travelers remain unconvinced. They point to problems with the existing PreCheck procedures and their own often inconsistent experiences with them.

Here’s how PreCheck is supposed to work: Passengers pay an $85 enrollment fee and submit to a background check and interview. In exchange, they may receive a pre-9/11 type of screening that allows them to keep on their shoes, belts and light outerwear, leave their laptops in their cases and not remove clear zip-top bags of liquids and gels from their carry-on luggage.

Here’s how it is working: As PreCheck expands to 117 airports — from 40 in the fall — passengers are discovering that the new lines are sometimes a free-for-all, with travelers randomly selected for preferred treatment. Air travelers feel a mix of gratitude and frustration. They’re thankful that they don’t have to make a difficult choice between a full-body scan and a pat-down. But PreCheck members are often confused when the PreCheck line is filled with travelers who they say don’t deserve to be there.

Don Domina, a veteran business traveler from St. Charles, Mo., paid $100 for a membership in Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers. Global Entry also gave him access to PreCheck, but on a recent flight from Miami, he found himself in line with “regular” folks who hadn’t paid for the privilege. The result: a long line that moved more slowly than the regular lines.

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“The line was constantly stopped for a bag check,” he remembers. “Oh, and they put all wheelchairs and some families through the same line, too.”

Domina’s efforts to move into a faster line were rebuffed by an agent, who said that if Domina had a PreCheck designation on his boarding pass, he had to use the PreCheck line.

“The TSA use of PreCheck for more and more people really diminishes the value for those of us who paid, and it makes a joke out of the whole process,” he says.


Domina’s frustration is echoed by other air travelers with PreCheck privileges. Traci Fox, a college professor from Philadelphia, also paid $100 to participate in Global Entry. On a recent flight, a TSA screener allowed a group of young passengers who were late for their flight to cut ahead of her in the preferred line, even though they didn’t have a PreCheck bar code on their boarding passes.

“How about showing up early like you’re supposed to?” she wonders.

The TSA refers internally to the process of offering one-time access to PreCheck as “managed inclusion.” The agency exercises it during specific time periods and locations throughout the day or week, depending on the relative length of the PreCheck line compared with the standard screening checkpoint lanes.

But that may not be the only reason for managed inclusion. Those given access to the PreCheck lines are singing the new screening protocol’s praises. Gone are the controversial full-body scanners, the shoes, liquids and laptops on the conveyor belt. When there’s a short line, the screening takes a few seconds, just as it used to.

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“I practically did a dance to celebrate,” says Alisa Eva, a consultant from Chicago and a recent beneficiary of the TSA’s “randomizer,” a software application that selects passengers for PreCheck privileges. “It was so nice not to have to take off the Chicago snow boots or start stripping off all those layers. The line went quickly.”

In fact, the process went so smoothly that Eva happily forked over the fee for her Pre-Check application. That seems to be what the TSA and a group of travel companies represented by the U.S. Travel Association want. Both are pushing for the expansion of what a recent U.S. Travel blue-ribbon panel calls a “voluntary, government-run trusted traveler program that utilizes a risk-based approach to checkpoint screening.” Put differently, both the TSA and the travel industry want you to pay your dues, get a background check and join the PreCheck club.

If the flaws in the current system aren’t obvious yet, critics say that they will be this spring and summer when an influx of passengers meets the expanded PreCheck program at many airports. PreCheck is almost always the faster line, but agents have a lot of discretion when it comes to triaging incoming travelers.

If you’re late for a flight, you might get a PreCheck pass; if it’s a slow day and an agent wants to screen you, the PreCheck membership is meaningless. You can be screened in one of the regular lines and, if necessary, re-screened with an “enhanced” pat-down. PreCheck offers no guarantees.

The TSA says that it isn’t fair to judge PreCheck based on the experiences of a few air travelers. Since it began testing PreCheck in 2011, the agency notes, 55 million passengers have received expedited screening. But that includes not only PreCheck but also any number of other unnamed “risk-based” security initiatives.

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“TSA leverages a number of programs so that travelers may receive expedited screening when they travel,” says TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

One thing seems clear: With hundreds of PreCheck lines at airports nationwide, as opposed to just a few dozen during the busy winter travel season, the TSA might have to choose which group to disappoint: the frequent travelers who shelled out $85 to be pre-screened, or the summer travelers who just want to get to the gate faster.

Is TSA Pre-Check fair to air travelers?

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