Losing TSA Pre-Check is easy, but just try getting it back

The Transportation Security Administration can’t stop talking about its new Pre-Check program, which offers air travelers preferred screening status if they submit to a background check.

But the agency seems less eager to have a conversation about the tens of thousands of passengers who lose their Pre-Check privileges, sometimes for petty offenses that date back decades.

They’re frequent air travelers like Tim Pickering, who a few weeks ago noticed that the little Pre-Check icon on his boarding pass had disappeared.

Pickering, who works for a medical evacuation service in O’Fallon, Mo., and received his Pre-Check benefits through Global Entry, a trusted traveler program run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, sent two polite e-mails to the TSA through its website. He received a form response suggesting his status had been randomly and temporarily removed.

Having TSA Pre-Check status is no guarantee of using the faster lines, where you can wear shoes and go through metal detectors instead of full-body scanners.

“I would like to find out what has occurred to seemingly block me from the program,” he says.

The answers provide a troubling picture about how easy it is to lose your Pre-Check status and how hard it is reclaim it.

The TSA is understandably reluctant to discuss who is added to its “disqualified” list and how.

“TSA maintains a list of individuals who are disqualified from receiving expedited screening for some period of time — or permanently — because they have been involved in violations of security regulations of sufficient severity or frequency,” says TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

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He says passengers can be disqualified for having a loaded firearm in carry-on baggage at the checkpoint, for example.

A search of the TSA website shows a more detailed list of infractions. It includes “non-physical” interference with the screening process or improper use of airport access facilities.

In other words, it’s possible to have your Pre-Check status revoked for something as minor as hurting a TSA screener’s feelings or inadvertently using an exit door to access the terminal. Worse, the agency won’t always tell you if you’re on the list; in Pickering’s case, he had to notice his downgraded status and received a satisfactory answer only after I inquired on his behalf.

A letter sent to Pickering by the TSA’s Office of the Chief Risk Officer noted that in February, he had committed a violation involving unloaded firearm magazines at a Raleigh-Durham International Airport checkpoint.

“Based on this violation, you will be ineligible for TSA Pre-Check consideration for a period of one year from the date of the violation,” the risk officer noted.

Pickering isn’t pleased.

“It seems to be purely punitive,” he says. “Be a good citizen for a year and we’ll give your privileges back smacks of a kangaroo court and arbitrary decision-making without our right of due process in order to deprive me of a benefit.”

He’s hardly alone. A retired executive who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and doesn’t want her name used says she was tentatively approved for Pre-Check status earlier this year. During her interview, she revealed that 50 years ago, she’d been arrested on charges of stealing a $25 necklace at a store. The government employee conducting her interview said it would “not be a problem.”

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But it was. “I received a notification that my temporary approval had been revoked and that my application had been declined,” she says. “My fingerprints had come back indicating I had been arrested for petty larceny.”

She is appealing the rejection since she’d been given a verbal assurance that since the incident happened so long ago, it didn’t matter. The TSA deferred questions about her to Customs and Border Protection because she’d received her Pre-Check status via the Global Entry program.

But her disqualification raises an even bigger question: How, exactly, is a retiree who tried to steal a necklace as a teenager a risk to airport security? Or how is a business traveler who mistakenly packed a few innocuous pieces of metal — not a gun, mind you — a threat to aviation safety?

The TSA should be clearer about who can be removed from Pre-Check, and why. Something tells me we’d discover the agency is adding the wrong passengers to its blacklist, and for the wrong reasons.

Is the TSA handling disqualifications fairly?

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What to do if you’re on TSA’s naughty list

Look for the check. If the Pre-Check icon is missing from your boarding pass only once, it may mean you’ve been randomly selected for regular screening. But if the icon is missing for the next few flights, odds are you’re on the TSA’s naughty list.

Ask about your status. If you believe you’ve have been placed on the TSA’s disqualified list, you can contact TSA’s Chief Risk Officer at tsa.gov/contact-us.

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Appeal the decision. If you have Pre-Check status through Global Entry, you can file an appeal through its Ombudsman’s Office, which adjudicates appeals. You can e-mail the Customs and Border Protection ombudsman at CBP.cbpvc@dhs.gov.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Erica

    At this point, any frequent traveler ought to know that anything gun or weapon related probably can’t be in your carry-on luggage, period – and if there’s even a question (e.g. “this seems innocuous enough…”) they can always go to the TSA to find out that, hey, magazines are indeed specifically banned. (took me 5 minutes of googling) I have zero sympathy for the guy who should have known not to bring anything firearm related through security (who did, and thus lost his “trusted not to do things like that” status).

    If the second case is indeed true, that a 50 year old larceny charge prevented pre-check approval… well, that’s just silly.

    Pre-check is basically the TSA’s way to say “we trust that you will follow the rules that we have set out” – the guy breaking the rules has pretty much proven that he will NOT follow the rules, whereas the woman with the decades old arrest hasn’t.

  • simonhb

    I agree with Erica – the first bloke had broken the rules, and I think they’re being generous in allowing him to has privileges reapplied in twelve months.

  • frostysnowman

    Regardless, he had a right to know WHY his privileges had been revoked and should have been told immediately. The TSA could have even used one of those form letters they love so much.

  • shannonfla

    I can’t participate in the poll because I think TSA seems to be acting fairly in the first example and unfairly in the second.

  • Jack Stinglash

    Pre-Check is rubbish. It’s a way to divide people by creating two classes — the “good” people and the “bad” people. The “good” people pay extra money and accept mindless authority. The “bad” people either can’t afford to pay extra or don’t want to, given that the program is just a vain attempt to avoid the humiliation forced on everyone else. How appropriate that those who thought they were special are finding out they aren’t.

  • Raven_Altosk

    My sister is a teacher and she took 20+ of her students on a trip a few weeks ago. Two of the kids–both 18, one with a foreign passport–managed to get through TSA on the wrong boarding passes. The airline had accidentally done a “reprint” of one while checking in the group. They went through security and it was only noticed during boarding.

    This was on SWA which issued the group paper tickets (hello, 1980s) and then stapled the boarding passes to the back of them.

    Are you scared?
    These two young men fit the “demographic” of all people involved in air terror in the US in the past 15 years. Both are young–18 years old. One is a British National originally from Nigeria. The other was a naturalized US citizen with a middle-eastern name and heritage.

    These kids were hardly a threat, but to make it through TSA on boarding passing that didn’t match their passports/ID at all!??!

    This was at HOU, just before 4th of July.
    Feel safer now, America?

  • MarkKelling

    Of course I feel safe. The TSA is all good and can do no wrong.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Do you also “firmly resolve” to behave while in line?

  • Poley King

    Pickering is an idiot. He really needed help to figure out that bringing a prohibited item through security would cause him to lose Pre-check access? He deserves a total ban. I bet his GE is not renewed.

  • Brian

    Both cases were handled fairly. It’s no secret about the seriousness of carrying firearms and, in the second case, assurances by a frontline TSA interviewer that are contrary to the application approval rules shouldn’t be grounds for granting an exception.

  • Jim Zakany

    People who try to sneak contraband weaponry past security or have a criminal records are denied Pre-check? Good.

    Seriously. Those are your examples of unfair Pre-check criteria?

  • $16635417

    Southwest at IAH?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Whoops…Hobby. My bad.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, I will shuffle along like the sheep I am.

  • Drontil

    When you write:

    “But the agency seems less eager to have a conversation about the tens of
    thousands of passengers who lose their Pre-Check privileges, sometimes
    for petty offenses that date back decades.”

    does that really mean that literally tens of thousands of passengers have already lost their Pre-Check privileges or does it include Pre-Check denials because of past “crimes?”

    According to the TSA spokes****, Ross Feinstein, only 375,000 people have signed up for Pre-Check. Tens of thousands having their privileges revoked should be making the news big time.

  • frostysnowman

    But it wouldn’t, because the media are TSA apologists who mostly report the “good” things they do.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. I must still be asleep. When you said magazines, I couldn’t understand why magazines like TIME were banned.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I guess I better not tell the TSA about the time I was hauled into the Principal’s office for using a bad word, in the 4th grade.

  • VoR61

    Thanks for the laugh Carver. I relate! +1000

  • $16635417

    Thought I missed a new service announcement! I WISH they went to IAH! :)

  • joaneisenstodt

    Fearful about this. I complained to TSA about the unfairness of pre-check for people (like me) with disabilities who need to have wheelchair service at airports. Had numerous voice and e- discussions.

    It’s inconsistent and often rude – you’re supposed to ‘look like you’re disabled’ evidently – and wheelchairs can’t go through the same line as TSA pre-check passengers (at DCA among other airports) so it complicates and negates having pre-check. Oh .. I’ve been home for a bit and will wait to see if my check remains.

  • Bill___A

    The first guy deserved what he got, he should know better. The woman should not be held to her 50 year old past in this case.

  • jim6555

    It would help if the rules, penalties and a way to initiate an appeal were posted on the TSA website. Everything about this removal process seems to be shrouded in secrecy despite the offenses cited being minor and not a threat to national security.

  • No, TSA gave me number on background, which I couldn’t include in the story.

  • 1amWendy

    Never in the comments conversation has anyone mentioned that anyone can get selected for PreCheck, whether a member or not, based on [apparently] the volume of travelers and/or some screener’s eyeball assessment. In the face of this, I think that all of you that think that there is any rhyme or reason to the cases cited in this article are not thinking this through very carefully.

  • MarkKelling

    Used to. I took their final flight from IAH to DAL in April 2005. Free drinks for everyone of us on the flight (about 30 passengers). It was a great point to connect to international flights in Houston if you preferred to fly WN domestic. Something HOU doesn’t have.

  • MarkKelling

    The opposite is also true. It is difficult to impossible if you don’t want to go through the Pre Check lane for whatever reason (travel companions aren’t Pre etc). They insist and are quite rude about it.

  • $16635417

    30 passengers. If that’s indicative of their success on the route, I guess that answers why they don’t go there!

  • Someone who committed a petty, nonviolent crime decades in the past. Yes, lets stick it to them forever..and over… never letting it go. No matter how exemplary their life has been after that point. (sarcasm … just in case someone misses it).

    When does one get to live past an early mistake? Seem like you are saying…never.

  • PsyGuy

    The first guy deserved what he got, and if I had been the risk officer Id have banned him permanently, as I have an extreme issue trusting someone who exercises such poor judgment. Anything gun related is not allowed in carry on luggage. Personally, I would have denied him boarding, because what do you need empty magazines in a carry on bag for? Those should go in CHECKED baggage, after declaring them to the airline. They weren’t “pieces of metal, they have a specific and intended form and function.

    The other incident is frivolous, a 50 year old shop lifting conviction is not indicative of a persons maturity now.

  • Raven_Altosk

    LOL! Seriously. UAL is stealing my soul. Hence why I posted IAH originally…I spend waaaaay too much time in that airport a week.

  • Raven_Altosk

    As a gun owner and as a guy who flies with one of his guns on ocassion I say this:


    He doesn’t deserve to be on PreCheck after his lapse of memory in regard to his firearm.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, it was the final flight and if you needed to get back to Houston you would fly to the other airport. If you parked your car at IAH it would be difficult to get to it from HOU. Southwest still flies from HOU to DAL almost every 30 minutes daily.

  • llandyw

    Pre-Check isn’t always a paid for benefit. There are a lot of people who will always get pre-check due to their job. Anyone who has a security clearance with the DoD for example. I’m sure there are other agencies that require security clearances that also automatically get pre-check when they use their employee ID number when they purchase their tickets.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I would guess that a computer automatically rejects the applicant if any criminal convictions appear. It would take a live human to then look at it individually. Not sure when or how human review would take place though.

  • Jack Stinglash

    Not true. People with DoD & other clearance complain often at Flyer Talk and at the TSA’s own blog about the fact that they don’t get Pre-Check privileges. It’s not automatically given. Furthermore, as we already know, non-Pre-Check people are put through the Pre-Check lines all the time just to keep the whole thing moving.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    It is not understandable that the TSA is “reluctant” to list what they are searching in our backgrounds. It is not understandable that the TSA will “randomly” throw people off the list for a year or forever, with no viable method of redressing the issue. It is not understandable that the TSA will deny people this program without reason or redress, especially since they want all Americans to be background checked and fingerprinted to get on a plane in the US.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Why should an empty magazine be considered a threat? It’s just a piece of metal, just like an empty box cutter (no razors installed or stored) is just a piece of metal.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Yes, the government is so generous as to deny people programs without reason or redress.

    And the government is so generous to cut people out of programs without explaining why after these citizens paid money, submitted to a secret background check, and FBI fingerprinting.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I feel safe because the chance that those two kids were a threat to aviation safety was nil. ID checks don’t make anyone safer.
    I don’t feel safer or less safe when the TSA doesn’t do their basic job duties. SSDD.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Sounds a little harsh. Maybe he should be keelhauled?
    I wouldn’t necessarily see an empty piece of metal as not allowed.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    But I hope the “frontline TSA interviewer” will be retrained so as not to lie to citizens about what’s allowed or not. I hope, but do not expect that to actually happen.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Interesting. Why couldn’t you include “number on background?”

  • Mundane Lustrator

    So no scopes or gun cleaning pads or a piece of wood from a broken stock or anything? How about if it looks like a gun or a gun part?

  • Jake

    I’m not really seeing a problem here, I’m actually seeing the opposite. It sounds to me like the TSA is doing their job. Pre-Check is something that should be overly strict and hyper vigilant. It seems reasonable to take into account an individuals entire criminal history when allowing them to be put through lighter security checks than the average flyer. While although it may seem that a 50 year old criminal charge should not impact your current life, the fact is that every action and mistake you have made in your life affects your life and to expect it not to especially in a security check is ignorant. The woman should be allowed to appeal the decline which seems to be exactly what is happening.

  • llandyw

    Those who complain are probably those who use online booking and don’t provide their ID number as there is usually no place to put the number.

    If they’re using it when taking a personal trip, they won’t be booking through the official agency website. The official websites will have a place for their ID number to be entered.

    When booking a personal trip, they need to contact someone who can actually place their number into the system, or the pre-check just won’t happen (unless it’s random).

    How many of those who claim no pre-check were questioned about the method used to get their tickets?

    It all boils down to, did their ID properly get entered into the system prior to their arrival at the airport. This must be done for each and every trip when pre-check is desired. Doing it once, either on business or not, means nothing for the following trip.

  • Leroy Kelley

    Can you take unloaded firearm magazines through security ? Whats to say someone takes loaded magazines through the Pre-Check line and uses them later ? How do you know who the good guy is in this case ? Mistake maybe ? Maybe TSA applied the correct “safe” logic here ?


    Have I not read this before? Not the topic but this exact post? These two examples are very familiar to me.

  • Yes, you have. This is my USA Today column. I have permission to republish it after a week on my site. Thanks for noticing.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes absolutely. What do you need a gun scope for at 30,000 feet? What do you need cleaning pads for at 30,000 feet, you cant clean anything? What do you need a broken piece of wood in the middle of the flight for? Those inflight movies are boring, time to start whittling with my butter knife.

  • Susan Richart

    I don’t understand your response. What number did the TSA give you? “tens of thousands”? Or did you take a specific number that the TSA gave you, which you can’t share, and change it to “tens of thousands?”

  • Charles Owen

    I was astounded when I read this story.

    1. The TSA is very clear: “All firearms, ammunition and firearm parts, including firearm frames, receivers, clips and magazines are prohibited in carry-on baggage.” Trying to take a firearm magazine though security is ridiculous. The idea that anyone would consider this a minor infraction is amazing to me.

    2. “…inadvertently using an exit door to access the terminal.” Minor? They evacuate airports when that happens!

    I’m waiting for: “Wow, I completely forgot that I had that Uzi in my bag. You’re not going to take away my pre-screening over something as silly as that, are you?”

  • chi_guy89

    Because nothing ever gets damaged or stolen in checked luggage right? I’m also sure you just love handing the airline $25+ every chance you can, right? The guy probably has no other record and you’re worried he’s going to go rogue Macgyver with an empty magazine? It’s just a piece of metal, plastic, and a spring. I get not being able to carry the actual gun (frame) or live ammunition and I even see the argument on replicas to prevent confusion, but now you’re just paranoid because someone had an innocuous item in their luggage that’s as useless as a cellphone without a battery.

  • chi_guy89

    I get no guns or ammo, but I don’t get the logic with parts (minus the frame). They’re as useless as a cellphone without a battery and some of those parts can be fragile or expensive so it’d be a lot easier to carry on. What’s the big deal about an empty magazine or the firing pin?

  • Mel65

    I have a clearance as a DoD contractor and I don’t have TSA precheck because enrollment isn’t available at my local airport. I still have to go through the entire process…interview etc.. if I want it and schlepp to an enrollment center. So, no it isn’t automatic. It’s easier for me to be allowed on board our “blue and white” fleet than it is to bypass the TSA at our local airport!

  • Poley King

    No its not too harsh. A clip is still a clip whether their are bullets in it or not. I would not call someone who brings in prohibited items as “Trusted” which is what the program is about. He has already demonstrated he cannot be trusted to. BTW just need a few people to bring each component separately and assemble post security

  • BunnyFaber

    In addition to the other comments … you don’t pay extra money to get the benefit, you pay extra money to be *considered* for the extra benefit. There is no guarantee that you will receive it.

  • PreCheck is great – when it works. But this is the dark side of the program. Because this agency (TSA) will do anything to keep its methods and procedures out of the light of day, it’s bound to be an arbitrary (read: usually unfair) process for those who lost their PreCheck status. TSA needs more public accountability in most areas, and this would be a great place to start.

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