Is the TSA’s PreCheck program ready for what comes next?

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By Christopher Elliott

The TSA 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.

PreCheck works like this: Passengers pay an $85 fee, undergo a background check and interview, and in return, they get a pre-9/11 type of screening. This means they can keep on their shoes, belts, and light outerwear, leave laptops in their cases, and keep liquids and gels in clear zip-top bags inside their carry-on luggage.

Mixed feelings among air travelers

Here’s how it is working: As PreCheck expands to 117 airports — from 40 in the fall — passengers are discovering that the new lines are sometimes a free-for-all, with travelers randomly selected for preferred treatment. 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 often feel confused when they see the PreCheck line filled with travelers who, in their opinion, 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 pre-approved, low-risk travelers. Global Entry also gave him access to PreCheck. Unfortuantely, 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.

He remembers that the line frequently stopped for bag checks. “Oh, and they put all wheelchairs and some families through the same line, too.”

Frustrations grow as more passengers gain access

An agent rebuffed Domina’s efforts to move into a faster line. He explained 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 says.

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Domina’s frustration is echoed by other air travelers with PreCheck privileges. Traci Fox, a college professor from Philadelphia, also paid $100 to participate in Global Entry. On a recent flight, a TSA screener allowed a group of young passengers who were late for their flight to cut ahead of her in the preferred line. They didn’t have a PreCheck bar code on their boarding passes.

“How about showing up early like you’re supposed to?” she wonders.

A mixed blessing for passengers

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 locations throughout the day or week, depending on the relative length of the PreCheck line compared with the standard screening checkpoint lanes.

But that may not be the only reason for managed inclusion. Those given access to the PreCheck lines are singing the new screening protocol’s praises. Gone are the controversial full-body scanners, the shoes, liquids and laptops on the conveyor belt. When there’s a short line, the screening takes a few seconds, just as it used to.

“I practically did a dance to celebrate,” says Alisa Eva, a consultant from Chicago and a recent beneficiary of the TSA’s “randomizer,” a software application that selects passengers for PreCheck privileges. “It was so nice not to have to take off the Chicago snow boots or start stripping off all those layers. The line went quickly.”

Why TSA and the travel industry want you to join the club

In fact, the process went so smoothly that Eva happily forked over the fee for her Pre-Check 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. An influx of passengers shall meet 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. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

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, re-screened with an “enhanced” pat-down. PreCheck offers no guarantees.

PreCheck’s expansion and the quest for fairness

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.

“TSA leverages a number of programs so that travelers may receive expedited screening when they travel,” says TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

One thing seems clear: With hundreds of PreCheck lines at airports nationwide, as opposed to just a few dozen during the busy winter travel season, the TSA might have to choose which group to disappoint: the frequent travelers who shelled out $85 to be pre-screened, or the summer travelers who just want to get to the gate faster.

Is TSA Pre-Check fair to air travelers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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