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 (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was one of the early ones with PreCheck) — passengers are discovering that the new lines are sometimes a free for all, with travelers randomly selected for preferred treatment.
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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 preapproved, 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 said. “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 said.
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 sites throughout the day or week, depending on the relative length of the PreCheck line compared with the standard screening checkpoint lanes.
In fact, the process went so smoothly that Alisa Eva, a consultant from Chicago, happily forked over the fee for her PreCheck 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, rescreened 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.
One thing seems clear: With hundreds of PreCheck lines at airports nationwide, as opposed to just a few dozen during the winter travel season, the TSA might have to choose which group to disappoint: the frequent travelers who shelled out $85 to be prescreened, or the summer travelers who just want to get to the gate faster.
Christopher Elliott is a travel-consumer advocate and the author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” His column runs regularly at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.