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.