TSA: We Actually Know You Aren’t a Security Risk, But Pay Us or Endure Screening Hell Anyway

I received an email from American Airlines this afternoon which explained that people who have opted in to share frequent flyer data with the TSA can no longer expect regular PreCheck.

For the past few years you could get regular expedited security screening if you were a frequent flyer with a major airline. They’d send over the data they had on you (which, let’s admit it, the government already has access to anyway). And most folks doing this would be eligible not to take off shoes, take out laptop, or remove liquids. That meant faster screening, and avoidance of nude-o-scopes.

There was never a single slip-up with this program, a ‘terrorist who got through’. TSA was completely comfortable clearing folks for expedited screening whom they had this information about and whose travel patterns it matched the profile of a non-terrorist.

But that’s not good enough anymore, it seems, because the TSA has enrollment targets to hit for their own PreCheck program.

The TSA is starting to deny PreCheck more frequently to travelers that have opted in through their airline loyalty program. It wasn’t guaranteed to begin with, and there were times before I signed up for Global Entry that I wouldn’t get access to it. (I’ve been pretty much batting 1.000 since then).

Even though all the algorithms suggested this process was ‘safe’ the TSA’s incentive is to make you pay and to run up their enrollment numbers.

I suppose I’ll benefit if it has the unintended effect of backfiring and leading to fewer people going through PreCheck. The lines usually aren’t bad in most airports, though PreCheck can be a mess in places like New York JFK and LAX… especially when the TSA is shuttling unexpecting passengers who haven’t opted into anything into the lines and they take off their shoes not knowing they don’t have to.

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. This post sounds like the change is a negative. I’m confused. I’m actually glad that the TSA is cracking down on the amount of the going through PreCheck. I’m sick of people having it and having no clue what it is. – And do we really want the airlines handling it out like candy? The TSA already makes it easy enough to sign up.

  2. Gary, I am glad they are doing this. I have paid my fee and I have been stuck in long TSA PRE lines with all the people that have been granted access and don’t know the drill. Sometimes it is worse than being in the regular line. A very frustrating experience that happens more than 50% of the time in the places that I have flown over the past 6 months.

  3. Indeed, this is just the next phase in the buy-back-your-fourth-amendment-rights program. Phase 1 was randomly opting in the general public to show how nice the Pre line tends to be. Now they have moved on to the monetization phase. Pure theater.

    @John: I doubt this is going to change your experience. They’ll continue to randomly opt-in folks despite this change. Speaking of which, I was in the pre line a couple weeks back and noticed everyone around me was speaking Mandarin. Passengers ahead of me and behind me in line were all carrying Chinese passports and, from what I could see, had boarding passes marked as Pre. Turns out, the TSA now opts in foreign nationals.

  4. I’m confused. If I have signed up for Global Entry and the individual airlines have my Trusted Traveler number, is there something else I need to do, or is it business as usual for me?

  5. This is definitely more of a reaction to strong sign-up numbers and wanting to keep the value proposition strong. It’s still definitely extortion, but at the rate things are going the Pre-Check lines were going to get a lot worse. Of course, TSA could pay to have the lanes reconfigured… AGAIN… so that there are more Pre-Check lanes, but this is way cheaper for them.

    But John Phillips’ comment is right on. The big problem with “managed inclusion” is that it ruins the whole concept of mode separation. It’s like occasionally allowing a streetcar onto high-speed rail tracks. It’s not a great deal for the streetcar because it can’t really take advantage of the grade separation and better geometry. It’s a terrible deal for the HSR train because it now has to slow down to the streetcar’s speed.

    In other words, throwing people who don’t know the Pre-Check rules into a Pre-Check line makes the entire system less efficient. It also contributes to lay people’s confusion. How many times have you heard, “Well, at [insert airport] I didn’t have to [insert humiliating act]” while walking through a checkpoint?

  6. Last year out of 100+ trips, I got pre-check I would guess 95% of the time. Yesterday, not only did I not get pre-check, I got the dreaded “SSSS” – subjecting me to extra screening! Guess I will try signing up for Global Entry again (they denied me a few years ago due to my travel patterns).

  7. Have precheck, receveived it 100% (50-60 pass thrus)since I got it. No problem with more people in Precheck as long as:
    1. People are educated on how to use the lane to move things along.
    2. Increase lanes based on usage stats.

  8. I have no problems with this at all. $20/year for global entry is an excellent deal even only if you take one international trip a year. Especially when your Amex platinum pays for it. Sorry, if a person wants premium service – pony up the dollars for it.

    I have sat in some pretty long lines at JFK and DFW for pre. So getting rid of the people who are clueless in using it – bonus. And if a person does know how to use it, they are experienced and travel enough that they can pay for it.

  9. I have no problems with this whatsoever. Perhaps I feel a little bad for frequent travelers who may feel pressured to sign up for Global Entry, etc., but the irregular travelers who get dumped in the Pre Check line with no idea what to do need to go. To me, this is a positive. Maybe not positive compared to 20 years ago, but definitely positive in the TSA era.

  10. About time! I got so tired of the Precheck line being so long and clueless when I have gone out of my way to interview and pay the fees. $20 / year is such a small fee to pay for expedited screening. It’s cheaper than economy plus! I hope it goes back to being short and sweet!

  11. If the issue were the slow, long lines — and that’s not the TSA’s reason for this change — the rational solution to that issue is that PreCheck LLL type screening should be the default norm for passengers in the main.

    But unfortunately we have this TSA foolishness premised on “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than other animals”; thus the vast majority of passengers don’t get PreCheck (LLL) type screening even as they should without giving DHS even more money than they do when paying for tickets..

    The notion that some (sub-)$85 or $100 background check for the average PreCheck passenger is keeping the skies safe is ridiculous on its face. The membership fee scheme is but a governmental extortion racket ro make passengers pay for greater chance to get screened faster — which is what the point of premium cabin and frequent flyer program elite lines were about when the airlines ran the fast track screening show more than they still do. For consumers, it’s long past the due time for the airlines to boot out the TSA, but the US3 airlines’ interest lies elsewhere than consumers’ interest..

  12. Didn’t I read recently that TSA was trying to increase the security fee per fare? This sounds like a revenue bid pure and simple.

    I personally dislike having to pay for my 4th amendment rights, as cited by Ryan K. Hell in a hand basket, I tell ya.

  13. I think this is OK in my book. I have almost never had any issues with lines at precheck. Seemingly the only time I do is when I am flying out of Austin on a Monday morning. If this reduces that line, then that’s a good thing in my mind.

  14. I still don’t understand why they give pre-check out randomly to people who are infrequent travelers. I was going through LAX pre-check and the couple in front of me were not from the US and had four bottles of water in their backpack. I thought the whole idea was to recognize that a significant majority of passengers are primarily just commuting to work (essentially repeated business travel) and wee pretty well known. as for global entry, I (almost) always fly in from overseas into DFW. With the kiosks there for immigration, there is not much incentive to pay for global entry. Every now and then the customs line slows down, but I don’t have to wait most of the time.

  15. @Chris “This is definitely more of a reaction to strong sign-up numbers….”

    I contend that sign up numbers are NOT strong which is why TSA is resorting to a “sign up or else” tactic. Pistole said in October of 2014 that “millions more” enrollees were needed in order for the program to work properly. Those “millions more” have not materialized and hence TSA is trying to force people to sign up by denying access.

    Isn’t it interesting that as a frequent flyer one could get PreCheck but now suddenly one won’t get it unless one pays. How can it be that one could be sufficiently benign in the past but now one has to hand over funds to again become benign?

  16. It’s the Ayatollah Obama and his “War on Whites”, I mean “War on Flyers”. No surprise.

  17. Holy cow you’ve really spun this in the most wonky way possible. Seriously.

    The biggest complaint about PreCheck has been the lines filled with people who didn’t know what they were doing, voiding the value of speedy access. This gets back to the original idea of having it tied to trusted traveler programs. The cost to enter those programs is tiny, especially spread out over the number of years it’s valid.

    Like many others – this is great news.

  18. This really is good news! I can’t understand why everyone does just pay the $100 for Global Entry. Last week at JFK there was a line at least 1 hour long for customs check – and there was no line for Global Entry customs check.

Leave a Reply

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