What’s Really Going on With TSA PreCheck?

One Mile at a Time writes about a frustrating TSA PreCheck phenomenon: in the rush to expand PreCheck and send as many passengers through expedited screening, the TSA has been randomly selected folks who have no idea what PreCheck is. If security matters at all, randomly not doing security seems strange.

But pushing about half of all passengers through a handful of lanes when those passengers don’t pass quickly has led to frustrating PreCheck lines at times.

Most reporting has suggested that the TSA plans to:

  • Phase out the practice of randomly picking people for PreCheck, which has led to a frequent traveler happy dance — fewer uneducated passengers clogging up the lines.
  • Rely more on paid individual signups — it’s all about the Benjamins.

But that’s only partially correct.

As transportation researcher Robert Poole reports in Airport Policy News, here’s the current status of PreCheck.

  • PreCheck is now in place at 118 airports — everywhere they’re currently planning to roll it out.
  • There are ~ 400 PreCheck lanes in total.
  • About half of all passengers get PreCheck
  • Less screening needs have contributed to a 7% reduction in the TSA workforce.
  • There are 26 on-airport and 275 off-site PreCheck signup locations (there was a goal of 41 on-airport sites).
  • Over 400,000 people hved been signed up for the PreCheck program.

The TSA won’t be priarily relying on PreCheck signups to scale the program.

Instead of “the retail approach” they’ll use third party enrollment in conjunction with “pre-qualified private consortiums” en masse.

They would be able to work with employers and industry to review large numbers of applicants, using each consortium’s TSA-approved algorithms to assess their low-risk status. The consortium would then submit a file of people it has cleared to TSA for final vetting.

Of course, since the full screening process fails as much as it succeeds, and doesn’t stop well-informed ill-doers, the random approach is just as good. They’re amalgamating a bunch of information before allowing us to exercise our right to travel without substantial encumbrance. But it could be worse.

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 »

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  1. Biggest problem I see with expanded pre-check (besides the folks who don’t know the drill because they are new), is the lack of response by TSA in scaling the lanes to match the diversion of all,these new folks. I was in BWI this month, and the pre-check line was 3X the elite line. So I chose the downside of belt off, shoes, toiletries, etc, for not waiting.


  2. Also at BWI, the pre-check line is often only in one concourse (I was flying American and had to enter through the Southwest/AirTran concourse to use pre-check). At Reagan, pre-check closes at 7 p.m. (because no one flies after that time?!). In Terminal D at DFW, there’s only one pre-check option most times I depart, and that terminal is HUGE. They need more lanes and hours that make sense for travelers.

  3. Real idea, not kidding – could CC companies partner with TSA to offer Pre as a card benefit? I think that a CC company could possibly meet a definition of “qualified private consortium” – they certainly know how to handle vast amounts of data and dig up people’s past records!

  4. @CW – AmEx Platinum already offers this benefit, either GE or PreCheck enrollment.

    It makes you wonder if the airlines will offer this at some point, also. Many already provide free GE for upper-tier status members. Wouldn’t be surprised to see them offer the option, similar to what AmEx is doing.

  5. @gobluetwo – Right now, as I understand it, AMEX Plat offers a reimbursement of the Pre/GE fee by way of a statement credit. You still have to go out and apply on your own. What I was referring to was CC companies actually serving as the processing agencies for Pre applications, in the manner suggested in the quote contained within the article. Thus the CC and Pre/GE app would be the same.

  6. TSA needs to respond by assigning more lanes to PreCheck pax when they know more PreCheck pax are coming. Not exactly rocket science.

    Linking PreCheck to paying a fee or holding a certain credit card seems fairly idiotic to me…Sure, it’s fine if I could pay a bribe and be on my way, but if you can’t see how easy it would be for bad guys to take advantage of a system like that, I’m not sure I can help you!

  7. Maybe the people randomly assigned precheck should be forced to watch a video/read an agreement about the service before getting their boarding pass with precheck

  8. You are saying the HALF of ALL passengers are getting PreCheck? Not here in STL. Based on the few times I’ve flown in the past few months the regular lines are WAY longer then PreCheck.

  9. @Patrick – on average across the country I could see it being the case. Have you been to any of the big leisure airports lately? LAS, MCO, etc. They ram EVERYONE through Pre. At biz-heavy airports it seems they keep it manageable – lines here at DCA aren’t usually much at all (gulp, jinx…).

  10. My experience at DFW this week was that with my precheck I went through a shorter maze, but once through, was set into a pattern with everybody else. I asked, “Which is the stream for precheck?” and was told, “We don’t really have precheck here right now,” so I had to go through the whole security theatre routine. If I had paid separately for precheck, I’d have felt cheated indeed. They really don’t know what they’re doing, do they?

  11. @Gary – didn’t realize UA also included PreCheck in the waiver. I utilized that benefit for GE when it first came out and haven’t paid attention to it since (and won’t again until my GE expires).

    @Patrick – TSA states that they have given PreCheck to almost half of all passengers, but it seems likely that a majority of the uninitiated would either not notice, understand, or care about the PreCheck logo on their boarding passes and, therefore, just go through the regular lanes. Unless those lanes are convenient to a PreCheck lane, they probably just stay in the regular lane. This also explains those reports of random people being shuffled over to PreCheck from the regular lines with confused looks on their faces.

  12. @peachfront

    PreCheck pax are not guaranteed PreCheck on every ticket. This (hopefully) solves that problem.

    I opted in as a UA non-elite earlier this year and still haven’t won the lottery. At first, I thought it was bc I use digital boarding passes, but those also support PreCheck! I did get it after waiting in the regular line in BOS. A partial victory, I suppose.

  13. Went through DFW yesterday. Walked up to the X-ray machine, then had to wait for several minutes while they explained the process to the people in front of me. On top of that, the Global Entry Kiosk would not read my passport. =/

  14. I’ve read many criticisms of newbies. Too bad they don’t read these blogs so they could hold up a mirror to y’all. Just one example from PreCheck: the guy who kept telling me not to take off my travel vest and other unhelpful suggestions while the TSA guy was quickly telling me the guidelines. It all took longer because I was getting talked at from two sides. And, yes, I need to take off the travel vest, which contains cell phone, keys, coins, and other metal objects, and it only takes a sec to whip it off (it’s not zipped up). And there were only 2 people in line ahead of us. I’m sure the guy felt superior to me and snidely complained to others about the newb. If not for him, we both would have been through more quickly. No doubt he’d have stories to justify his behavior, but, then, I, too, have stories to tell.

  15. I fly domestically by airfare prices & frequently fly Spirit as a result of the price, despite the obvious disadvantages inherent therein; but that is my choice alone. Spirit does not participate in the PreCheck program. As I have paid for both PreCheck and Global Entry (out of pocket rather than any cc program), if I present myself with my passport and ID’s and documents for those programs, would I be permitted through that line or sent over to the maze with the masses?

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