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.

TSA PreCheck for elite travelers

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 TSA PreCheck in the hopes they like it enough to pay for it.)

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Trusted Traveler Programs

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.

TSA PreCheck FAQs

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.

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