Has TSA Gone Off the Rails With PreCheck?

I love PreCheck. Which is to say that I love not have to stand in interminable bureaucratic lines to exercise my right to travel. And I love not have to go through a dance of shoes and liquid freedom baggies. I go through security quickly and in a somewhat more dignified manner.

And in the meantime TSA doesn’t waste its resources screening me, since I’m pretty obviously not a terrorist threat.

At first they worked with airlines to identify frequent flyers with travel patterns they were confident could be considered low risk. And they folded in folks who had been extensively screened through programs like Global Entry — if folks were ok to enter the U.S. without an interrogation, odds on they were ok to wear their shoes through the airport security checkpoint.

Getting Global Entry made a vast difference, it meant I was able to use PreCheck not just when flying an airline with which I had elite status but every time I flew (since I had a ‘Known Traveler Number’ to enter in my reservations).

But PreCheck has gotten slow. It’s lost some of its luster. Transportation researcher Bob Poole explains why, and why he believes that TSA is making some security missteps in their administration of the program.

PreCheck already claims to be screening a quarter of all airline passengers, and the goal is to be at 50% by the end of 2014.

They’re set to reach this new milestone by:

  1. Offering paid memberships to PreCheck. For $85 you can get registered, and they haven’t made clear what sort of investigating is being done.
  2. Picking people based on their travel histories and profiles who seem low risk. These folks don’t even expect to be given PreCheck, but their boarding passes appear with a Golden Ticket. This actually slows down the lanes, because PreCheck neophytes don’t know not to take off their shoes, take out their computer, and unpack their dangerous liquids.
  3. Picking people out of line at random.

Ok, they’re not exactly picking people out at random. But they might as well be. Here’s how Poole describes it:

TSA is using some of its Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) to watch people waiting in the regular screening lines, visually identify some of them as “low-enough risk,” and invite them to shift to the PreCheck lane. There is no pretense of any kind of background check in these cases—just the unscientific hunch of the BDOs that the person appears to be low-risk.

Poole believes the ‘Managed Inclusion’ program poses a security risk because the Behavior Detection program has been demonstrated to be so ineffective as to be completely useless. So it’s effectively random inclusion rather than risk-based screening.

But since PreCheck is still screening, and taking off shoes didn’t materially contribute to security, little security is actually lost.

While “clogging up the PreCheck lanes” is a problem — screening half of all passengers through what’s far from half of all lanes is going to present a huge logistical challenge — it isn’t fair to say that security is any more lax as a result of the methods being employed.

The myth of perfect security prior to PreCheck is just that, and comparing actual screening through the PreCheck program with the actual value of screening done outside of PreCheck are what needs to be realistically compared.

PreCheck has gotten too crowded because people are using it wrong, spending way too much time unnecessarily going through the motions as though they weren’t in a PreCheck lane. And because there are now more people for the PreCheck lines than those lines can quickly process, even if they were using the lines properly.

But PreCheck isn’t making us less safe, even though the TSA is using its ineffective and poorly-trained Behavior Detection Officers to meet a quota of half of passengers becoming eligible for PreCheck.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I totally agree. Last time I went through pre-check someone who needed wheelchair assistance was in the line in front of me. I wanted to ask what was the point of him going through pre-check if he can’t walk through the metal detector.

  2. putting the casual traveler into pre-Check is a mistake; they don’t know the protocol, and the entrance agents aren’t good at informing. i’ve been pre-check for yrs from AA Plat in Miami, now travel thru MSP much. now FAT a regional airport has what i call a blended pre-check yes i get thru faster but the rules seems to change weekly based on who is working the line – jacket on, computer in, liquids out, etc. not consistent. in MSP a high volume pre-check line the newbies are all taking off their shoes & light jackets not needed but they can’t possibly know

  3. If this is TSA’s way of gradually fixing their mistake that is the past ten years of overbearing airport security, then I’m okay with some initial missteps. While it’s fun to be part of the elite few that got to initially participate in TSA PreCheck, I’m fine with them opening it up to a larger percentage of travelers.

    When the post 9/11 TSA rules were first implemented (and constantly changing) lines were slow because people didn’t know to take their shoes off and liquids out. Eventually people will wise up to the PreCheck protocol and lines will speed up. If they are targeting 50% of travelers then they will surely have to open up more lanes.

  4. One of the big gripes I have is that the powers that be seem to be selecting a lot of families. Maybe the assumption is that bad guys wont want to hurt their own kids? Anyhow, its a double whammy because its more people and also more people (the kids) who do not know the drill.

    So here is my question…we have always had first class/priority security. Now we have precheck. Did the light bulb just go off? When are we gonna get first class/priority pre check?

  5. At MSP this morning, there were at least 50 people in the the PreCheck lane. It was clear that the vast majority had neither earned through status or paid for this privilege. How dare TSA charge $85 when they are letting people in for free. If these people don’t pose a risk, then offer them PreCheck for a $5 fee per flight.

  6. A SFO executive told me that they are rand Le givin git out, I got it, but they didn’t let me in line, because I am 14. I got to cut the line. It seems like precheck’s purpose is not for cutting the line, but instead is to give a less comprehensive screening for low risk passengers.

  7. Next step is to offer Diamond, Platinum, Gold, etc… TSA Pre Check memberships based on how many times you go through the TSA Pre Check line. Or they will do like Delta and raise TSA Pre Check membership to $695 and see how many people will pay for the service.

  8. I flew DEN-ORD on Tuesday morning. In the Pre-Check line there was 1 guy checking ID’s and there were 2 TSA agents pulling people out of the general line and moving them to Pre-Check…..slowed the line down by 100%, making the wait 10 minutes or so

  9. The lines for pre check at some airports are crazy. Agree 100% that the people they pick are slowing things way down. They are taking off shoes, fumbling for laptops etc. TSA tells them nothing. I try to help by saying this is a special line and you do t have to take off shoes or take out laptop. They are stunned when I tell the. And one guy asked me if I was sure. Grrrrrr

  10. A Pre-Check invitation has been put into my luggage every time I’ve flown for the last 2 years. I keep considering, but each time I unpack my suitcase I end up throwing the invite away, because when I think back to the line I waited in, I don’t remember EVER seeing a sign that routed Pre-check customers to a shorter line. When you are standing at the back of a 15-20 minute line to get through security, do you ever see a sign routing you to Pre-Check? I would love a short-cut through security, but I don’t think such a short-cut exists.

  11. Don’t blame the “newbies”, who have been conditioned for the last 10+ years to go through the security process in a particular way. It doesn’t matter if they fly 1 time per year or 100, nobody should have to do the ridiculous liquid, shoes, and laptop charade.

  12. I believe Pre-Check is the TSA’s way to gradually back away from many of the post-9/11 “security” changes they have made, without admitting they were useless changes in the first place.

  13. Learn to share dude, It is good that precheck is expanding, no one becomes an expert the first day. Maybe you should not do precheck and let others do precheck and see how it feels. What makes you more special than others, whiner

  14. Where are the “rules” posted for Global Entry/Trusted Travelers ie: no belt/sjpe removal, computers stay in cases, etc?

  15. My home airport added Pre-Check rather recently. They were indeed pulling people out of the regular line and into the Pre-Check flow. I asked how they decide who to pull out, and the answer was vague, as could be expected. But if overall the process means less time on the average for security for everyone, it’s a net gain. I’m not sure that’s the case, but I suspect it is, and will be increasingly so as more occasional flyers become familiar with the concept. I agree that easily visible information should be posted at the Pre-Check entry so that those unfamiliar with it will know what parts of the security hassle they can omit.

  16. The only truly random precheck I’ve seen was at CLE. As I approached the TSA line an agent holding a I-pad touches the screen for you and a large arrow lights up and your directed to the regular TSA screening line or a PreCheck line. I “won” and got preCheck. It was a joy to go thru with jacket on, shoes,belt and watch on, and not having to remove laptop. But others who got picked seemed confused and had no idea what was going on.

  17. Actually at COS they do put people in pre-check at random. They have an iPad that they tap on for each traveler and it randomly selects people for pre-check.

  18. We lost the day TSA was put into action. And, it hasn’t made us one whit safer. I trust my fellow passenger to keep me safer than an”agent” dressed in a fake police-style uniforms.

  19. Surprised not to see more comments nor much emphasis in Gary’s article on how people have paid for the privilege are now waiting in line behind people that haven’t.

  20. TSA is definitely not expanding the Pre-Check screening lanes as fast as they are moving people into Pre-Check. They either need to add more lanes or throttle the BDOs randomly adding people whenever the queue builds up. It also seems to me that the premium lane often defaults to send people to pre-check.

    I do think we ought to get the government out of staffing the checkpoints and get several competing private companies involved.

  21. Pre-Check was SUPPOSED to be for elite FREQUENT FLIERS and those that had Global Entry and went through the Application process which includes a FULL background check, fingerprinting etc. Having gone through all that I felt safer knowing that those of us were low risk and could speed through the Pre-Check lines. It was at first.

    Then I flew out of BWI last month and the Pre-Check line was longer than the regular line. It seems a lot of military staff fly out of BWI and they can use the Pre-Check line. But then they started putting in elderly travelers and others at random – who did not know the “process” and started taking off shoes etc. No TSA person said anything to them and the entire process which normally takes 10 minutes – took 45 minutes to get thru!

    Later at the United terminal at LAX the same thing happened. I told the newbie in front of me that he didn’t have to take off shoes, remove laptop & liquids …so he asked the TSA agent and she said – yes you can remove – it’s faster if you do….????? WHAT??? HELLO??? this is the PRE-CHEK line!!!

    They should keep it as it was originally designed!

  22. $85? Looks like the TSA wants another money grab, like it doesn’t already receive enough millions in their yearly budget in the first place.

  23. Its interesting that no one is talking about the similar thing going on with global entry. I dont really know what it is, but they now have kiosks that are not global entry kiosks. My parents came through that way and said it was really quick and they didnt even have to talk to anyone (?); strange. I am not terribly thrilled I paid 100$ but at least they are keeping it separate for now (not sure what happens at customs).

  24. Agree with Andrew’s post. The Global Entry process is supposed to give you confidence that those in the pre-check line have already been screened. We took a 5:45 AM flight out of DCA in December. The pre-check line was so long that we opted for the shorter regular line and got through faster than we would have using the pre-check line. The one bonus was because we were marked as known travelers, we got to leave our shoes on even in the regular line. On the return flight from Tucson, the pre-check lines were closed.

  25. When I was at BWI the other week, the I heard TSA Supervisor tell the others to use the pre-check lines as much as possible to keep their wait time averages down.

  26. It is sad that treating more travelers respectfully at the checkpoint (e.g., not making them partially disrobe, not groping them, and not generating images of their nude bodies) is adversely impacting so many people’s sense of entitlement and causing delays for said entitled people. It is sad that people see PreCheck as a perk (or “privilege”) when TSA is merely restoring the human dignity and human rights previously taken away from us. It is sad that PreCheck members are willing to undergo background checks and pay a fee to get those rights back. It is sad that frequent flyers stop complaining about the violations that occur at TSA checkpoints after they join PreCheck.

  27. Idea of offering Pre-check to non-threatening pax is fine, however in practice……..2 weeks ago I was returning from a convention & at Boston’s Logan behind a couple who looked older than my in-laws (who are 89 & 91). Both had canes & were moving very slowly when of course I was in a hurry to catch my flight. They had no idea of what to do in this lane & the TSA agents had to physically help them with the bins, instructions about what to place in the bins, not to take off their shoes, etc. My patience was really wearing thin & although I appreciate what TSA is trying to do, for those of frequent business travelers this is REALLY clogging-up & slowing down the lane!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *