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

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.

“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.

“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.

“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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • polexia_rogue

    i have not been on a flight in about a year— are there 3 lines?

    the last time where were 2 lines; main line and first class line (this is where they put people who were late for flights and people in wheelchairs.) is there now a 3rd line? or is “precheck” the first class line?

  • frostysnowman

    Before 9/11 we were all “trusted travelers”. After 9/11 we have all become guilty until proven innocent at the airport, unless we pay for the privilege of becoming a trusted traveler, or we’re very frequent fliers, or we have bought a first-class ticket. The indignities the TSA puts us through at the airport get worse the further we get from 9/11. It’s ridiculous. We should all be screened as trusted travelers, period.

  • bruceincharlotte

    First class travelers still get the same security theater as economy class travelers. They just have a shorter line to wait in before they get to the irradiation machine and/or opt-out point.

  • $16635417

    I was traveling with my kids recently, they got the random pre-check and I didn’t. TSA agent checking ID’s wanted them to go ahead of me in the pre-check line and have me wait in the regular line. I said that we have to go all together, I’m not separating myself from my kids. The agent said we couldn’t, so I told him we’re fine in this line (the long one). “Do what you want.” he said…so I went to the shorter pre-check line after passing by him. The agent manning the pre-ceck line told me I couldn’t be there, but the kids could. I told him the other agent said I could do whatever I wanted since I was staying with my children. He shook his head and let me through. Clearly, there is confusion on the TSA’s part as well.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Oh, the horrors of someone being kind to another person! (see comments by Traci Fox in the article) She has no idea why that group of people was late – perhaps a connecting flight was late, or there was a transit problem – but because she’s paid $100, it’s okay for her to judge everyone else at the airport.

    The entire tone of the article just set my teeth on edge.

  • NakinaAce

    The entire TSA is just one big, expensive joke so that we the traveling public can pay for this modern version of Kabuki played by people that couldn’t get jobs as airport porters in the past but are all on line for a big fat government pension – and they are all Obama voters. A pox on the TSA, all the Obama appointees, and the power happy Democrats that are running this country into the ground!

  • Ribit

    I suggest that the random assignment of Pre-check (which I have observed) actually reduces security. If someone with nefarious intent happens to receive the random Pre-Check designation (which is clearly shown on the boarding pass), that person could keep the prohibited/dangerous item in his shoe and try to get through security. If this same person did not get the random Pre-check, a quick trip outside or to the restroom could be used to dump the prohibited/dangerous item. I do not support the random assignment of Pre-check for those that have not been through the Global Entry/Pre-check vetting process.

  • Bill___A

    The way they run this pre-check does not make a lot of sense. We don’t hear people complaining and discussing security in other countries because the other countries do it somewhat logically for the most part.
    Some things done by the TSA should be random, but not getting *in* the pre-check. People could be randomly taken out of pre-check. This whole business of getting it on your boarding pass is absurd. I have a Nexus card. I go in the Nexus line with my Nexus card. I don’t have to make sure”nexus” is printed on my boarding pass. To the person who commented about paying the $100 to get in the faster line is unjust, it isn’t just paying $100, you have to go through a security check and THAT is the qualification to get in, not the fee.

  • Travelnut

    Sorry, I think she’s got a point. I think it’s not just the $100 fee, but they’ve gone through a background check and I believe a personal interview. And also the sheer randomness of whom the TSA decides to put in the express lane. I’ve certainly stood in security lines not knowing whether I’d make my flight, and the TSA certainly wasn’t expediting me. So if I’d jumped through all the hoops plus paid a fee and they still allowed other other passengers, not just to be in the Precheck lane but to go ahead of me, yeah, call me a B but I’d be peeved too.

    My Global Entry application is sitting on the counter, and I’ve always been on the fence about submitting it. This article doesn’t help make the decision easier!

  • SameerT

    The author needs to fact check before writing such an article.
    There is NO fee to enroll in TSA PreCheck. Initially, it was only the airlines that could invite passengers for pre check registration (typically the elite members). Even then, the TSA would ultimately decide if they have enough info about someone and if that passenger is low risk to get PreCheck at the line.
    For the people that paid $$, that is for Global entry, nexus or whatever program (similar but NOT the same as pre check).
    Now they are expanding to even more people – through random monitoring.

  • rwm

    I get pre-check quite often on my flights. And I hate it! Why? Because I have a knee replacement. Almost all of the Pre-Check lanes are staffed only with metal detectors, not scanners. So, my knee always sets off the metal detector, and I end up with a pat down. The process ends up taking longer than if I had used my Clear Pass or the Priority Access lanes. Now, I always check if the Pre-Check lane has a scanner. If it doesn’t, I’ll use Clear (if the airport has a Clear lane), or Priority Access lane.

  • Vec14

    Sorry, you are incorrect. Originally you could get TSA Pre-Check by being a high-mileage flyer at the discretion of your main airline, but now anyone who pays $85 and submits to a background check and interview with the TSA can apply for Pre-Check.

  • Susan Richart

    From the TSA itself:

    “There is a nonrefundable application processing fee of $85.00.”

  • Vec14

    I paid my $100 and applied for Global Entry after thinking about it for a little while – basically I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as the background check (if it’s public record, they know about it). As a graduate student, the interview was a little longer and more detailed than I expected – got asked a few questions about my finances – basically I think the CBP officer wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be bribed into smuggling goods.

    Pre-Check has been a nice side benefit – I usually opt-out and it isn’t always pleasant at my home airport in Phoenix. Now they just want to check my bp three more times to make sure I really am Pre-Check.

  • Susan Richart

    Ribit, you must have missed the statement in which Pistole, TSA head (expletive) told us that it is his vaunted Behavior Detection “Officers” who choose about 200,000 per day for Pre Check type screening. And you know, they would never let someone through with nefarious intent! (sarcasm)

    Pistole’s statement was in response to the GAO’s report saying that the BDO program was useless and a waste of money – just like everything else TSA.

  • kbiel

    Mother may I keep my dignity and 4th amendment rights of I pay you $85 and submit to your arbitrary selection program?

  • MarkKelling

    Pre check line is different from the 1st/business line. As is the Clear line. And in some airports, the employee / flight crew line. Which means there can be up to 4 lines, depending on the airport and which terminal you are needing to enter at that airport (the Pre Check lines are not always at every checkpoint at the airports which have Pre Check). In the airports I travel through, the 1st line is still where they send the wheelchairs and those running late. And the Pre Check lines are always completely separate from which ever other ones are at that checkpoint unlike at many airports where the 1st and regular lines mix after the ID check.

    And you better not stray into the “wrong” line as one person did recently at IAH. He was in front of me and wouldn’t/couldn’t understand that the TSA guy wanted him to go through the regular line. This took nearly 10 minutes of discussion until the police arrived and took him away. Meanwhile the 1st and regular lines were moving smoothly and quickly. But, as mentioned in the article, us with the Pre emblem on our boarding passes were not allowed to change lanes. Once I got past this issue, the actual screening took less than 1 minute for me – drop my bag on the X-ray and walk through the metal detector.

  • Keith Lockwood

    Pre Check in numerous locations (MIA in particular) has turned in to a giant joke. If TSA is going to allow everyone in to the Pre Check line they should have more than 1 lane for Pre Check. It’s beyond ridiculous how everyone gets to go in to the Pre Check line while no one is in the regular security line anymore… 2 weeks ago there was literally not one single person in the Priority Access lane at MIA while the Pre Check line was jammed up beyond belief, I went through the regular PA line in less than one minute, even while removing my shoes, laptop, etc.. Glad I forked over $100 for a “benefit” that TSA now freely hands out to pretty much everyone. It also points out how all of this “security” is nothing but folly… I went through an extensive background check and a face-to-face interview for my Global Entry access and TSA just randomly lets anyone in this lane… pathetic.

  • MarkKelling

    I recently completed the Global Entry enrollment. It really was painless, for a government process. Most was done online and I didn’t have to give the government any information about me they didn’t already have (employment history, where I live, my fingerprints [they had them because of a previous employer’s background check]). There is an in-person interview which can be done at most any airport which I did at IAH while passing through about a week after the application was approved (my home airport has a six month wait for interviews). And since I am a frequent flyer with one of the major airlines, that airline even paid for the $100 fee.

  • Travelnut

    Thanks for the info! I think it’s been just recently that I could be interviewed at my hometown airport; having to travel to IAH was a major reason I’d not bothered.

  • joaneisenstodt

    I was approved for GOES and TSA pre-check. The catch for me? At DCA (my home airport), USAirways wouldn’t let me, because I need a wheelchair at the airport, cross a line to go through the pre-check screening after my passport and boarding pass were approved. I called and spoke with someone at TSACares and got a letter of apology from TSA which didn’t help nor resolve the issue. Oddly, in the process, only my hands were swiped; the rest of me, in the chair, was taken to another belt where my luggage was put through and I wasn’t subject to screening. I was taken through a ‘side gate’. TSA was most concerned about that and understandably except for upcoming trips on the same airline, I have no clue what will happen. At only DCA has this been an issue.

  • lost_in_travel

    I just got one of the random pre-checks. It was a pleasant surprise to leave my shoes and light sweater on. There was only a metal detector and the woman ahead of me who also had a random, not paid pre-check, set it off so she had to be hand screened. She was not a happy camper! Perhaps if it had been the regular line with the radiation device she would have been ok but the metal detector was her downfall. Worked well for me, not well at all for her.

  • BMG4ME

    Airlines make you pay more for enhanced services, I don’t see any objection to the TSA doing the same as long as it doesn’t compromise safety.

  • Ryan Ver Berkmoes

    Kindly keep your useless foaming to yourself. Oh and the TSA started long before Obama but I’d guess such facts would get in the way of your blather.

  • Ryan Ver Berkmoes

    This commenter needs to fact-check their comments before posting.

  • NakinaAce

    Ryan van Berk? I get it. This is Al Franken’s nom de plume. I said they were Obama voters, like you I imagine, not that Obama put them there. The whole thing is a waste of money and they are probably still drawing unemployment and food stamps as well. Some of you riding in the wagon should get out once in a while and help those of us that are pushing it. OK, Al?

  • Ryan Ver Berkmoes

    Generally Pre remains a great and welcome option. – I got through SFO in 3 minutes today. But the recent deluge of random folks could degrade it to the point of uselessness. Two examples:

    1) Last week at SFO a wife was unhappy she had to through regular security until she got through 10 minutes before her husband in the very long Pre line.

    2) Yesterday my Pre line had long delays because people being diverted in had no idea of the difference and thus pulled a Pavlov and took off their shoes, emptied their bags, yanked off belts etc etc etc. the TSA screener there made no effort to explain things.

  • Ryan Ver Berkmoes

    Given you are off your wagon, there is no reason to help push.

  • bill gertz


    The nasty ad2store redirect is back with a vengeance. I could not even get to an article without being redirected to the craptastic Game of War: Tired Age. Please. Make. It. Stop.



  • Bro AJK

    I would rather see us all equal in the eyes of Big Brother, not that some are more equal than others.

  • Lisa Skier

    Ran into the same thing when going to Chicago a couple of weeks ago from DFW – daughter got random pre-check and nothing was said about what that meant…I got behind an older couple that were given the random pre-check (I have the paid version) and since they had no idea I should have gone through the regular line. Happened again coming back from Orlando


    I usually agree with you Jeanne. But I am not today. The Pre-Check line is primarily for prescreened passengers who have provided specific information. I am not in favor of adding too many random travelers in and am certainly not in favor of using it to reward travelers who are late. What if people who are pre-check we’re running late as well and were delayed by the travelers moved to the front as a reward for their tardiness? The prof may have sounded unkind but the TSA assumed that no one else in that line was running behind.

  • Alan Gore

    Time for a little levity break for those who still underestimate the stupidity of the TSA. Here is a story about a passenger who, on the way to one of those oh-so-suspicious libertarian alternative money conferences, had his baggage searched for Bitcoin:

  • TestJeff Pierce

    No, everyone will get random 4th amendment rights…some will pay $85…other will just go through without charge…at no time will ANY American get 2002 screening …EXCUSE ME, I mean PreCheck…which worked just fine in 2002 before the TSA started assaulting people’s crotches.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    I hope one day you will realize you should not be profiled for your medical metal. And, maybe, you will stand up for your rights and ask WHY do they need to touch your crotch if you have a metal knee for example?

    Professor Ruskai sued the TSA for the exact same violation of your rights…she always gets groped because she has PreCheck and gets the constitutional metal detector. Her case was heard Jan 7, 2014 (you can Google it) if you care to follow the outcome to see how the United States will treat you once her Appeals Court decision is announced this year.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Except for the fact that you are worried about the fact that NO airline passenger on a US Domestic flight has caused one fatality with a working non-metallic bomb for over 51 years, then your risk assessment is right.

    The fact is there are no terrorists of any significant risk to justify the unconstitutional scanners and criminal touching pat downs.

    Assuming there was, the first one in over 51 years is having a fairly good chance of getting into the Pre-Check line anyway, so it is all worthless.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Both you an Nakina miss the point – the unconstitutional scanners and criminal touching pat downs are a bipartisan destruction of the American values and the 4th amendment.

    The TSA is disgusting, John Pistole should be arrested, and Americans should opt out of every scanner at all times….mass optouts would bring the security screening lines to a halt and get the point across to the government that they should restore reasonable security (precheck is just 2002 security, but with less liquids).

  • rwm

    I tried that. But all it did was delay me even more, and at times when I can’t be delayed, like on business trips.
    I like the way you put it down as being MY fault…yeah, right.
    I’ll just use the Clear lanes at SJC and SFO. I’m paying for it.

  • CeeJay

    Particularly on the mobile site :(

  • mszabo

    Wouldn’t it be easier for that person with nefarious intent just pay the $85 to get the pre-check designation? Professional Suicide Bombers may only need to commit the one crime to have a successful career.

  • mszabo

    Seems like your still potentially misinterpreting what the precheck status is. It is not a membership club. It basically is just a status for the TSA agent to let them know you don’t absolutely need to have the full procedure. It is a tool the TSA can use to help manage the traffic going through security. If the TSA thinks you still look suspicious at the gate, I’m sure your going to get the full patdown anyway, if the TSA agent thinks it is too busy and needs to divert some flow to precheck, they do that too. It is basically a tool that can be used by the TSA and I’m sure they thank you for voluntarily providing the extra data fingerprint/interview that they would normally be constitutionally prohibited from asking for.

  • MarkieA

    Just so you know, there is no such thing as a “big, fat Government pension” anymore. All Government employees since 1987 are in the FERS retirement program, an investment-based 401K-like program that took a huge hit in 2008 (enough to keep a lot of folks from retiring “on time”) , just like private sector folks. Retirement for Government employees is just as sketchy as it has been for others recently. Plus, there’s the constant threat that Congress will decide to raid the employees’ “nest egg” for their own purposes.

  • NakinaAce

    Compared to everyone else the pensions are large and not justified since nowadays government employees are paid more than private sector people for the same work. I spent 11 years wearing the uniform of my country in some very nasty places. I don’t get a pension.

  • MarkieA

    As I said, there is no “pension” anymore. Retirement for Guvvies is the same type of 401K that everyone else gets; subject to the whims of the stock market. The folks who got the “big, fat Government pensions” are retiring today. And, the “research” comparing Government salaries to private sector salaries makes no comparison to job type; just that, overall, Government employees make more than average. This would be expected when you factor in fast-food employees, dishwashers, Walmart greeters, etc. to the mix. I know for a fact that private sector workers in my field – computer security – get paid a whole heckuva lot more than I do.

  • Saul B

    I suppose bribing judges and jurors would be okay too, huh?

  • BMG4ME

    No that’s completely different, if you can’t tell the difference then that’s troubling.

  • Saul B

    Please, tell me, how is paying a fee upfront to reduce the chances of a government employee feeling me up before I travel about the country any different than paying off a judge or jury?

    What is the correlation between one’s ability and willingness to pay up and the chances that one plans to blow up a plane?

  • BMG4ME

    I suggest you educate yourself on how TSA Pre works then we can have that discussion.

  • RonBonner

    While FERS is certainly not as juicy as the old CSRS retirement plan it still has advantages over civilian 401K type plans. FERS is based on three components, 401, Social Security and Basic Benefit Plan.

    Perhaps this will help those who don’t know or understand.:

  • TestJeff Pierce

    I don’t blame the victim (you) for what the TSA does. As you know, the TSA can pick off passengers 1 on 1 and it is very difficult to mount any kind of unified protest. The only thing I encourage is for everyone to opt out…if everyone did that, it would be untenable to use scanners or criminal touching pat downs.

    I am not saying it is your fault… could always write your local house of reps congressman or visit their local office in person and ask them why the government is examining your crotch…do they support that or not?

    I leave extra early for business travel so I can opt out without issues. I will never sign up for 2002 security (i.e PreCheck) on general principles, don’t blame those who do.

  • Stereoknob

    The “managed inclusion” is just an advertising program. You get it, you tell people, everyone signs up and forks over $100. If safety was the main concern and not profits, then randomly selecting people is a bad choice. If you pay to have a background check done and get vetted, then OK… you’re paying to cover the costs of all the processes involved. It’s scummy and another example of why the TSA is ridiculous.

  • Stereoknob

    I agree with you. If you’ve put in the extra time, it would be frustrating to see other random people being afforded the benefit you had to work and pay for to receive. Also, if the goal really is safety, then allowing people who are late to waltz ahead really doesn’t make people safer.

  • Twin_King

    If the Behavior Detection “Officers” are randomly selecting individuals, how does this explain the fact that my 13 Y.O. son, who has never flown, was checked in for a flight from CLE to DIA 24 hours prior to departure and given Pre-Check status. On the return flight DIA to CLE my wife was given the Pre-Check status upon check-in 24 hours before flight time. I’m the frequent flyer in the family and have not paid for Pre-Check and will not be doing so based on this randomness, in all my flights I’ve never been granted Pre-Check status.

  • Jetboyds

    FYI: no airlines have made the ‘choice’ for their frequent travelers. The eligibility rules were given to the airlines by the TSA and the airlines are required to follow the rules given to them.