The TSA finally has something consumers like in PreCheck. Can it build on its success, or will bureaucracy and political squabbles confuse matters?
There is little love among the flying public for the Transportation Security Administration. Complaining about the TSA screeners that staff airport security gates, baggage control, and select transportation points around the United States has become as much a travel-related pastime as commenting on airline peanuts or mocking the safety instructions at the beginning of every flight.
But as 2013 came to a close, it looked as if the TSA was finally doing something people didn’t respond to with knee-jerk hate: its PreCheck expedited traveler system. Of course, positive chatter about PreCheck was accompanied by complaints that the popularity of the service was so great that lines were becoming too long. But the TSA isn’t new to complaints.
“As someone who has experienced the PreCheck lanes firsthand,” says consumer advocate and frequent TSA critic Christopher Elliott, “I love it! No scan, no pat-down, shoes on, everything stays in the bag. It’s like flying in 2001.”
Since its launch in October of 2011, PreCheck has handled more than 30 million passengers. Along with other expedited traveler programs including NEXUS, Global Entry, and SENTRI, and the relaxed screening rules afforded to seniors and children, expedited screening now covers a quarter of all passengers trips through an airport.
The TSA is planning to double down on PreCheck in 2014, opening more lanes at security as well as more registration points both at airports and off-site locations.
Ross Feinstein, Press Secretary at the TSA, says: “Rapid expansion is the way forward.”
PreCheck is available at 114 airports in the U.S., with a set number of lanes at each one, as well as flex lanes at busier airports like Nashville and Atlanta.
Up until December, when the TSA opened a registration center at Indianapolis’ airport and then Washington, D.C. airports, passengers had signed up for the service online.
“We want to be able to get more people enrolled,” Feinstein says. “We’re adding up to 300 enrollment centers at on and off airport locations.” Feinstein explains that PreCheck is easier to scale than NEXUS or Global Entry, which both require passports to participate.
More flyers using PreCheck leads to longer lines filled with people who may not be sure how to use them. Education is an issue, Feinstein admits. “Don’t remove your shoes, don’t remove your jackets, keep your laptop in its case,” he says.
TSA’s ambitions are backed by the $1 trillion spending bill passed by congress last week. The bill makes provisions to increase the pool of passengers cleared for expedited screening to one out of every four travelers by the end of this April and half of all travelers by the end of 2014.
This two-tiered system will leave some passengers behind. The $85 registration fee covers five years of use, but has been criticized as a hardship for some. And some experts would just prefer one fast line as opposed to two line of varying speed.
Elliott says, “As a consumer advocate, I’m not impressed. TSA has carved out yet another special class of traveler. Instead of forcing us to pay extra to belong to their little PreCheck club, they should be developing more intelligent systems that identify real threats to aviation security.”
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Photo credit: PreCheck line at the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport. Ellen Creager / Detroit Free Press/MCT