Lower-than-expected PreCheck enrollment seen as key to problem.
Fliers will likely face massive security lines at airports across the country this summer, with airlines already warning passengers to arrive at least two hours early or risk missing their flight.
The Transportation Security Administration anticipated its expedited screening program, PreCheck, would speed up lines, requiring fewer agents to screen passengers. But the agency has failed to enroll enough travelers, leaving too few screeners to quickly handle a growing number of fliers.
The TSA tried to make up for that shortfall by randomly placing passengers into the express lanes. But it recently had to scale that back for fear dangerous passengers were being let through. That’s when the lines started growing, up to 90 minutes in some cases.
No relief in sight
The TSA is shifting some resources to tackle lines at the nation’s biggest airports, but says there is no easy solution to the problem with a record number of fliers expected this summer.
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“We had unacceptable line waits at the majority of our hubs,” says Robert Isom, chief operating officer of American Airlines. “Based on what the TSA is telling us, there is no relief in sight.”
Launched nationwide in 2012, the PreCheck program gives previously vetted passengers special screening. Shoes, belts and light jackets stay on. Laptops and liquids stay in bags. And these fliers go through standard metal detectors rather than the explosive-detecting full-body scanners most pass through.
PreCheck lanes can screen 300 passengers an hour, twice that of standard lanes.
The TSA offered Congress a lofty goal of having 25 million fliers enrolled in the program. Based on that and other increased efficiencies, the TSA’s front-line screeners were cut from 47,147 three years ago to 42,525 currently. At the same time, the number of annual fliers passing through checkpoints has grown from 643 million to more than 700 million.
As of March 1, only 9.3 million people were PreCheck members. Applicants must pay $85 to $100 every five years. They must also trek to the airport for an interview before being accepted. While 250,000 to 300,000 people are joining every month, it will take more than four years at that pace to reach the target.
“It hasn’t been a failure; it just isn’t moving as quickly as it needs to move,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior VP for legislative and regulatory policy at airline trade group Airlines for America.
Without enough members, the TSA faced a problem: PreCheck lanes were nearly deserted while other lines snaked throughout terminals. Keeping empty PreCheck lanes open was a waste of staff. But without them, passengers who paid to join would be aggravated.
So the agency created workarounds to allow passengers who hadn’t been fully vetted to still get expedited screening.
Those flying 50,000 miles a year or more with an airline sometimes got the PreCheck designation on their boarding pass at check-in. Others would randomly get it based on demographics.
As a further step, the TSA in 2013 created a program called Managed Inclusion where it randomly pulls people out of the normal line when it grows too long. Fliers’ behavior is monitored, they are screened for explosives, then allowed to use the faster PreCheck lane.
The Associated Press has spent the last year fighting under the Freedom of Information Act for details on how many fliers are allowed into PreCheck through each method, but has been denied the information for unspecified security reasons.
Lines did get shorter. By Thanksgiving 2014 nearly 50 percent of fliers were getting expedited screening.
Then last year, two embarrassing inspector-general reports came out, highlighting TSA security lapses. One disclosed that the agency let a convicted domestic terrorist use PreCheck. The second revealed that in 67 out of 70 tests nationwide, screeners failed to find mock weapons and explosives.
In response, TSA agents stopped pulling passengers out of line unless there was an explosive-detecting canine team present. That change went into effect in September, right after the Labor Day rush.
The move forced about 10 percent of all passengers — some 70 million a year — to go back to normal screening.
Longer lines soon followed. By February, just 26 percent of passengers were screened through PreCheck, according to Associated Press calculations on TSA data.
During spring-break week in mid-March, 6,800 American Airlines passengers missed their flights because of long checkpoint lines, foreshadowing the headaches airlines fear during peak summer travel months.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, waits have topped out at 90 minutes, with the morning rush averaging 45-60 minutes, says Wendy Reiter, director of security and emergency preparedness. In the first week of March, 50 Delta Air Lines fliers missed international flights — the type that depart only once a day.
Sea-Tac’s percentage of passengers going through PreCheck between Jan. 31 and Feb. 27 was 34.9 percent, better than most U.S. airports, but still well short of the nationwide goal of 50 percent. New York’s Kennedy Airport sent only 20.4 percent of fliers through PreCheck in the same period.
At the world’s busiest airport, in Atlanta, General Manager Miguel Southwell told the TSA last month that “things appear to be only getting worse.”
The TSA knows there is no quick fix.
“The real answer to the volume growth is to ideally get a fully vetted, trusted-traveler population,” TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said.
For now, though, the agency is relocating 28 of its 142 canine teams to the 20 busiest airports (of which Sea-Tac is one) so it can randomly put more fliers into PreCheck.
An added 200 screeners are being trained weekly, but more than half that many are lost weekly through attrition. The agency is asking airlines to enforce carry-on restrictions before checkpoints.
One bright side: The TSA says there is a direct correlation between longer lines and a spike in PreCheck enrollments.