Are some travelers still being given free TSA PreCheck?

Security lines at some airports are long and require that passengers arrive even earlier than the airlines suggest in order to make their flights. Several years ago, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began Trusted Traveler Programs, including TSA PreCheck, which allow passengers who have paid a fee and submitted to a background check to benefit from expedited screening. Travelers with TSA PreCheck do not have to remove laptop computers or liquids from their carry-ons, and are allowed to keep their shoes and sweaters on as they are screened.

In the past, airlines could reward elite status travelers with TSA PreCheck at no charge through a program TSA called a Managed Inclusion Program. That ended earlier this year — or did it?

A reader identifying himself only as KDA recently noticed that travelers who had not paid for TSA PreCheck were apparently still rewarded with the benefits of expedited screening. He wrote to TSA and received a response indicating that some travelers may still be receiving the benefit without paying for it, and he asked for our thoughts on the matter.

According to the response KDA received from the TSA:

In addition to providing TSA Pre✓® eligibility through U.S. Department of Homeland Security trusted traveler programs, we use intelligence-driven, risk-based procedures to identify low-risk passengers for TSA Pre✓® screening on a flight-by-flight basis. Therefore, you may be selected for TSA Pre✓® even if you have not applied for a DHS trusted traveler program.

The letter also states that travelers who have not paid the fee and submitted to the required background check should not expect to receive PreCheck each time they fly, unless they make application and are officially accepted into the program. (I have to wonder if TSA is “teasing” passengers with PreCheck in the hopes they like it enough to pay for it.)

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There are several Trusted Traveler Programs that allow passengers to utilize TSA PreCheck lines, including Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI.

KDA isn’t specific about what made him think that some passengers were getting TSA PreCheck who hadn’t paid for it. We don’t know if he overheard people talking in line, read an article about it, or simply heard a rumor, but it turns out that he is correct. While airlines are no longer allowed to simply reward frequent travelers, the TSA does still allow some travelers who have not paid for a Trusted Traveler Program to receive PreCheck benefits.

In the PreCheck FAQs on its website, the TSA also lists some travelers who receive complimentary access to PreCheck: active duty military personnel and civilian Department of Defense employees. Military personnel do not have to “opt in” for the program and are not required to be in uniform. Civilian DoD personnel do have to register for the program but would obviously be in civilian clothes, as well. It’s possible that KDA saw military personnel not in uniform or DoD employees who were sent to the PreCheck line.

The TSA also acknowledges that U.S. citizens over the age of 75 receive some of the benefits of PreCheck — namely, leaving their shoes on and not being required to remove belts and sweaters. As with every traveler, however, none of the people given expedited screening (including people with TSA PreCheck) are exempt from additional screening.

I have Global Entry, and I remember the first time I received PreCheck as a Global Entry member. I frequently traveled internationally for work and had missed a connecting flight because of a delay at immigration when I learned about, and purchased, Global Entry in an attempt to avoid that experience in the future. At the time, I had no idea TSA PreCheck was part of the Global Entry program and stood in a very short security line, wondering why I was sent to a different line. So it’s possible that KDA also saw people who were entitled to the program benefits but were unfamiliar with how it works.

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With long security lines at many airports, it’s likely that the TSA will continue to randomly select “low-risk passengers” through its “intelligence-driven, risk-based procedures” to select passengers for expedited screenings and continue to annoy the people who paid to be an official member of these programs.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

  • fs2013

    I have Nexus, so I get PreCheck. My spouse is an airline employee who has been subjected to federal background checks throughout his career. He seems to get complimentary PreCheck a little more than half the time. Most of the rest of the time, when he displays his badge at the security podium, he is directed to the PreCheck queue.

  • AJPeabody

    What happens if one spouse is selected for this benefit? Do they both get fast checking or do they go through separate lines?

  • Steve Trizis

    Separate lines. When flying i seem to get lucky and get precheck about half the times. My wife never does. Might be because 40 years ago she travelled to some middle east countries.

  • Hanope

    I don’t know about selection if you haven’t paid for it, but if one has paid, then there is a decent chance all family members will get pre-check if the tickets are purchased together. At least, that’s how it has worked for my family.

  • Alan Gore

    This has happened to us on several occasions, with me always being the one who gets Pre-Check because my wife is an alien. I would rather we both just go through the regular line together, because it’s easier for her if I’m there to help out.

  • DCMarketeer

    On the last four or five flights my husband and i have taken, we’ve been in the TSA PreCheck line even though we’ve never registered for it. It may have been us that he heard talking about never having registered — we’re slightly amazed that we get to breeze right through.

  • Charles Owen

    Yes, some passengers are getting PreCheck without paying for it. I know, because I’ve gotten it, as has my wife. We don’t get it always and sometimes I get it when she does not. So what? I know some are thinking it is unfair that they paid for something I get for free. Deal with it! PreCheck is a wonderful thing that benefits everyone, even those who are not selected. Everyone who goes through PreCheck decreases the wait for those who do not. That’s good for everyone involved. No, I did not pay for it, but I’m also not guaranteed it, like those who have paid for it, so they get a benefit from paying for it.

  • ctporter

    In a precheck line last week, I was behind people going on a vacation (from overhearing their conversations), I waited as they get to the ID checker and had to search for their IDs and boarding passes. (I could over hear: is it in your purse? your jacket pocket?, who has them?) Then, as they get to the conveyor belt they start to unpack liquids, but end up putting them back in once they understand the liquids do not need to come out. They try to go through the scanner, but have to go back and remove cell phones from their pockets, they then find out that coins and car keys count as metal also. Did I mention the huge belt buckle? Next the belt is stopped, because one of them has a water bottle in a backpack. Sigh.

  • ctporter

    If all travelers that got Precheck knew what to expect it would be great, unfortunately many of them do not and they slow down the precheck lane enough to make it slower than the non-precheck lane at some of the airports Ive been through lately. In EWR my mother, sister and brother-in-law, and 2 nieces all made it through standard screening well before my husband and I did going through their Precheck.

  • Jeff W.

    Your key word is “chance”. I have paid Pre-Check/Global Entry and when the family travels together, sometime the wife gets it, sometimes she does not. Same with my son, but since he is under 13, he is entitled to my status, regardless of what is on his boarding pass.

  • finance_tony

    “a wonderful thing that benefits everyone…”

    Everyone? Nonsense. Giving away precheck to those who have no idea how to use it slows the rest of us down. After border security at DFW yesterday, I entered the pre-check line too late to realize that after I snaked through the ropes, the line was longer than standard security with a bunch of people who had been given little Pre-check “cards” to try the system without having been screened for it. They slowed everything down, with most having to go through secondary after carrying pockets of change through or leaving bottles of water in their bags.

  • Bill___A

    Non one should ever be going through any sort of “reduced” security check without the background check. When they use pre-check as an overflow or a sample, it just makes a mockery of the whole thing.

  • MF

    My family all got pre-check last month without any special status from the airline or TSA.

  • llandyw

    There’s also another group that get PreCheck. Anyone working for the Federal government who has a security clearance only has to provide their employee ID number at booking, and show that ID when going through the PreCheck line.

    Sometimes though it doesn’t work. The booking system (forget the name right now) has a tendency to combine the first name and middle initial into the first name and give no middle initial. When name doesn’t match the trusted traveler number, it’s frequently going to be denied PreCheck.

    I have to contact the airline to get it fixed usually, or I don’t get it.

  • BhamPat

    My husband and I both have precheck. Before we got it last year, one or both of us would occasionally get it. We went to NYC for spring break with our 15 year old daughter. She got precheck with us, both coming and going. I was concerned about her not getting it at LGA, and probably would have stepped out of precheck if I could, to go with her through regular screening, especially if I couldn’t see her.

  • Koholaz

    Never paid for PreCheck, always get it when I fly for some reason. Not sure if it’s my age (67 year old female) or the innocuous destinations but I get it on every ticket.

  • Fishplate

    Interesting. I meet your criteria…Of four flights in April booked through our official travel agency, three got free PreCheck, and one did not.

    Am I automagically assigned a trusted traveler number, or do I have to ask for it?

  • Lee

    I flew last month (NYC to LA) and on both going/coming flights, was given pre-check (no, I haven’t paid for the program), never submitted anything for a background check, etc – I was surprised by it even though I did have it happen once before.

    I didn’t even realize I had it until I went to the regular security line and showed my boarding pass and she pointed out the tiny check mark notation on it and directed me to the pre-check line.

    I have no idea why I was given it – only that it was nice not to have to take off the shoes, haul all that stuff out of my bag, etc and I certainly don’t expect it to be a regular thing.

  • pauletteb

    I only fly a few times a year but still opted for PreCheck. It’s worth every penny!

  • pauletteb

    How does your getting something you didn’t pay for and thus have no right to “benefit everyone”?

  • kittymocha

    I’m almost 70 and had to sign up for PreCheck last year cause I was tired of wondering if the airline I use for about 4-8 flights a year was going to give it to me. I just wanted the assurance I would have it for every flight as it is much easier. It’s still a puzzle to me to see who they pull aside to do a more thorough check in the regular lines. Like I’ve seen a lot in comments, it’s more a theater going on than safety.

  • cscasi

    However, those who have not paid for it, have not had to go through the security check process, either. Therefore, they should not be considered a “trusted traveler”, which I thought was the basis of this program which allows less security checking when going through the PreCheck lines (subject to random additional checks).
    So, allowing others who have not been “checked” to use the lines tends to defeat the overall purpose of “PreCheck”.

  • joycexyz

    No. I’m guessing my husband looks more harmless than I do.

  • starrfish479

    I’m 38 years old and every time I’ve flown in the last year, I’ve gotten Pre-Check. And no, I haven’t paid for it.

  • joycexyz

    You’d think those people lived in a cave–no newspapers, TV, nothing to keep them informed. They should be asked to step aside so as not to hold up the line. Or directed to a line for the clueless.

  • joycexyz

    Especially when combined with Global Entry. Makes returning to the US a breeze.

  • Lindabator

    I can agree with that – one couple in LAX took over 15 minutes to go thru with all the mistakes they made – that helps NO ONE

  • Lindabator

    you have to apply

  • Mel65

    KDA seems a little bitter or something to complain about such a thing. I have TSA pre-check now as a DOD contractor employee sponsored by my employer; however, when I didn’t have it I would occasionally just be pulled out of line to go to a TSA pre-check line if there were long lines. I can’t imagine people getting upset because other people are getting it randomly. Just like you are occasionally selected for random secondary screening you should also be selected for a random pre-check. occasionally.

  • Mel65

    If you are a federal civilian employee your trusted traveler number is the number on your CAC. That should be loaded into your travel profile for your DTS generator travel. If however you were traveling on personal travel you would probably have to enter it all manually I would guess

  • LeeAnneClark

    The whole thing is a mockery.

  • Attention All Passengers

    As an airline employee (retiree) and my age (67), I am still benefiting from TSA Pre-check, never paid for it. On principal I am not paying the U.S. Government to get on a line that sometimes moves slower than the non-Precheck line anyway. Even with the Precheck line, I’ve been held up due to other travelers still having some sort of “problem’ on the line. I always get to the airport early and I’ll just wait on a longer line if I have to. I see TSA Precheck as a form of “profiling” anyway. You are charging me to be “profiled” in advance and paying for the privilege of saving 5-10 minutes on a line but you refuse to profile the people that need to be profiled ??. B.S. on that.

  • Attention All Passengers

    See, this is what I’m talking about. These yokels don’t have a clue but I should pay money for the “privilege” of being behind them and moving just as slow as if I was on a non Pre-check line ?? No, I don’t think so. I’ll go buy food with the money I’ve saved.

  • Fishplate

    I’m Executive, not DOD. So, no CAC.

  • Skeptic

    I, too, am an Executive Branch employee. I almost always get Pre-check, both for work and personal travel. I’ve wondered if this is due to my age and gender, my frequent flier status, my husband’s ATP certificate, my SF-85 background check, or some combination of the above. In any case, though, I note that the screening I get was good enough pre-9/11, and that since cockpit doors have been armored and the SOP for dealing with hijack attempts has changed 180 degrees, the TSA has not caught anyone trying to smuggle explosives etc. on board. Yet a number of handguns make it every day — no one knows how many.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    Also depends if there is an “off duty” TSA agent, escorting his/her relatives or friends, those people get PreCheck status regardless they are under 75, or under 30 y.o.a……..At one point they did not had wheelchair assistance for me, and I was almost collapsing in the line, when I saw this person escorting one by one from the group of 5 (more likely all in the same family) to the scanner and coming back for the next, until they were all gone in no time while disabled people like myself had to wait in the long line to get scanned. Or it is a law for everybody to have Pre-check, or it isn’t? By the time someone like me gets to the boarding door, we might be late for the flight.

  • llandyw

    I don’t know if it applies to the exec branch (which the DoD is a part of). You must have something that includes your 10 digit employee ID number. The employee ID number is also your trusted traveler number. SF-85? I had SF-86. Not sure if that was a typo or there’s another form. You may be using a PIV instead of a CAC too. Not sure what you’d use for logging into your computer and for ID for your work location access.

  • llandyw

    Typically a minor is given precheck if the person they’re traveling with has it.

  • llandyw

    There’s a random component to PreCheck too. Sometimes those who have it (paid or not) get regular screening, and some who don’t normally have it get selected to get it. I’d guess those who don’t fit the profile that would be suspected of doing something dangerous are weighted toward getting it. Not sure how the other way around works though. However, when you book a flight, make sure your name appears exactly as your ID, and the name you used if you paid.

    As I said earlier, Systems like Sabre don’t always place the correct name on a ticket. The DoD travel agency (Manassas) uses Sabre and even though my full name, including middle name is provided to Manassas, Sabre truncates the middle name to the initial and appends it to the first name. So, if your name is Joseph David Jones, the ticket would end up with the name Josephd Jones.

    Last flight I was on (cancelled on April 8) I contacted Delta, before the 2 hour wait, and they changed it to what it should have been. It appears that TSA is aware that this happens since none of them has ever questioned me about it, but I don’t get the green checkmark very often if I don’t get it fixed.

  • John McDonald

    we always seem to have TSA precheck on our boarding passes. Not sure why ? Travelling with kids or travel to USA regularly ? Low risk Australians ?
    We also try to avoid like the plague, busy airports like Denver, where everyone seems to be stressed. Instead, we try to fly into Vail airport. We always try to use frequent flyer miles/points.
    We got all our frequent flyer points from credit cards, not actual flying.
    NOTE, Vail is an expensive airport to fly into, if paying with cash, cf Denver.
    Last time we checked in for our flight to LAX from Vail, we were the only people at check in(it started snowing so we arrived early at 5pm for a 7pm flight & check in wasn’t even open)
    We weren’t on a private jet, but an American Airlines A319, which probably seats about 140 people in 12 classes, but it was the only flight after 5pm.

  • Rebecca

    My mom gets precheck almost every flight (I just asked and she has it next times she flies to visit in a few weeks, and I also verified it was free). My stepdad does not, although he doesn’t fly nearly as often as she does.

  • Carchar

    As a platinum or gold level leisure traveler on United, I have gotten PreCheck without paying for it every time I have flown for the past several years. When the news came out last year, that flyers were going to have to pay for PreCheck, I got ready to get “stuck” in the regular line. It hasn’t happened yet. Two days ago, I turned 75, so now I can keep my shoes and jacket on….unless I’m selected for the extra going over. I’m flying again on Thursday. Hopefully I haven’t jinxed myself by saying the above.

  • Charles Martel

    My wife and I received PreCheck on both our outgoing and return flights last week.

    It sure makes a difference.

  • Charles Martel

    Happened to us once. My wife breezed through and waited on the other side as I joined the other cattle in the chute.

  • Tanya

    I have received free TSA PreCheck the last 5 times I have flown. Not sure why, I don’t question it, I just go with it.

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