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

The TSA's "randomizer" in action at Orlando International Airport on Feb. 28, 2014. This iPad-based application sends roughly every third passenger to the faster Pre-Check line. The rest are offered given a conventional screening. If the arrow points left, it's your lucky day.
The TSA’s “randomizer” in action at Orlando International Airport on Feb. 28, 2014. This iPad-based application sends roughly every third passenger to the faster Pre-Check line. The rest are given a conventional screening. If the arrow points left, it’s your lucky day.


The 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.

Here’s how PreCheck is supposed to work: Passengers pay an $85 enrollment fee and submit to a background check and interview. In exchange, they may receive a pre-9/11 type of screening that allows them to keep on their shoes, belts and light outerwear, leave their laptops in their cases and not remove clear zip-top bags of liquids and gels from their carry-on luggage.

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 are often confused when the PreCheck line is filled with travelers who they say 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, but 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.

“The line was constantly stopped for a bag check,” he remembers. “Oh, and they put all wheelchairs and some families through the same line, too.”

Domina’s efforts to move into a faster line were rebuffed by an agent, who said 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.

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, even though they didn’t have a PreCheck bar code on their boarding passes.

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

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.”

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 when an influx of passengers meets 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.

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.

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.

  • rockymtranger

    Love Field was a joke on Monday morning…three TSA agents checking IDs on the PreCheck line, while only two checking those who didn’t make it through plus Elites and employees. There has to be a little bit of balancing before they roll it out further.

  • Tim

    I ran into this at ORD last week and BOS Monday morning. Both times, families with kids and grandparents slowed the line ahead of us.
    As a frequent traveler, I paid for Global Entry like the person in the article. It’s frustrating that these lines are being clogged by people who never fly and are completely inexperienced.

  • mjhoop

    Sounds like a “gimme your money” scam to me. If I paid for any other “privilege” or “membership” wouldn’t I be chagrined and disgusted if those who had not paid got the same benefits I forked over cash for? You bet I would. I can’t bring myself to use the vernacular to express my true disgust and chagrin….

    Sounds like they know they are wasting resources on the current system and they are trying to wind down the mess before the congressional investigations begin…..but creating another mess in its place.

  • Skeptic

    I think those who paid the government to process their PreCheck and/or Global Entry applications are confusing this payment with a PreCheck admission fee. It’s not. All travelers are already paying DHS/TSA for airport security costs from flight segment fees. Currently, the segment fees pay about 43% of TSA’s operations. The rest comes from appropriations, i.e. taxes we all pay the IRS.

    I am a frequent flyer who refuses to pay the application fee for this system out of my own pocket, on top of the substantial segment fees I’m already paying due to my Alaska location. (There are virtually no non-stops from ANC to destinations I frequent.) Plus I already have a current government background check — not that that means anything to TSA. However, perhaps due to my FF status, or maybe based on demographics (late 50s, never-arrested, WF with a high credit rating and ATP licensed pilot husband), I have gotten PreCheck every time I’ve flown lately, in advance, i.e. on my boarding passes when I check in 24 hours before my trip.

    So please don’t think that just because you paid the fee — and, for some of you, then wrote this off as a business expense, meaning the rest of us taxpayers subsidized you — you deserve to pull rank over the rest of us. The enemy, if you will, is the mind-set that says we need TSA security theater. It is not your fellow travelers (pun intended).

  • BobChi

    I can understand that those who paid specifically for PreCheck could be annoyed that others get ushered into the line anyway. I got in via Global Entry, which I paid for in its own right. It seems what we’re seeing now is a tacit admission by TSA that all the extra annoying hoops in what we’ve called security theatre actually have very little to do with true security. If the outcome is that more and more people can get through more quickly, that’s a good thing overall. And I can still understand why those who paid would be annoyed.

  • AirlineEmployee

    And when everyone starts paying this ridiculous fee you will now have the same long lines, congestion and confusion that reigned before having that “privilege” of the elite few.
    I’m not paying $85-$100 for some TSA agent to randomly put anybody and everybody who didn’t pay a fee ahead of me – I’ll get to the airport early and stand on whatever line I end up on (long, short or in-between). Also, for a few seconds I couldn’t get past the photo caption …..”if the arrow points left it’s your lucky day”…….sounds like Poland in WW II.
    The people that are supposed to have it in perspective (TSA) and handle it correctly and fairly don’t have a clue and fee paying sheeple, er, travelers don’t dare object at a TSA checkpoint – we all know what will happen.

  • janice

    Flew out of Dulles at 600a Sunday morning. Couple I am guessing in their 80s were directed to Pre-check line. Not only were they slow moving, understandable, but they clearly hadn’t flown in a while. Had to dig out ID’s , asked TSA agent lots of question, then husband went through metal detector at least four times because he had stuff in his pockets. Line behind me went from 2 to at least 25 in this time, I’d estimate at least 5-7 minutes just for them. While the regular line moved along quickly.
    This stuff happens at the airport, but in Pre-Check? I know it’s a first world problem but there were people starting to get nervous about missing flight.

  • Welby Ferguson

    People are paying money to buy back their rights? Sounds like extortion. And from all evidence, they’re not even getting their rights back anyway. So on top of everything else, it’s wasted money.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Couldn’t agree more…..Sadly, it seems, people will pay for anything just to get on the bandwagon. Traveling is a major hassle most of the time – accept it / even embrace it and relax / plan accordingly and get to airports early.

  • Phil

    I was given airline frequent flyer Pre-Check on a recent flight and found it actually was more trouble than it was worth. First the line was just as long as the regular TSA line. Second I have two artificial hips. The Pre-Check line had only the conventional metal detector and after placing my carry-on bags on the conveyer and pointing out that I had artificial hips I was asked to remove my bags from the conveyer and was taken to an imaging line where I was given the “what is wrong with you, you fool?'” treatment because I had been sent over with my belt and shoes on. Next time my airline offers it to me I think I will just pass for the known evil of the regular TSA line.