The TSA doesn’t like long lines either
PreCheck participation lags, creating longer waits for everyone Passengers are “frustrated when those lines are closed”
When the U.S. Transportation Security Administration expanded its PreCheck background screening program in 2013, the agency’s chief described the dedicated airport security tracks for cleared travelers as the “happy lane.” Sadly, the PreCheck experience hasn’t always lived up to the billing.
With enrollment lagging projections, the TSA has at times closed PreCheck lanes to shift personnel to regular screening lines, where waits have stretched as security has tightened. Qualified passengers who’ve spent $85 to bypass such queues wind up back in the line, too. “It’s a service TSA is selling and people are paying for,” Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president for customer experience at American Airlines, said at a May 26 congressional hearing on recent delays at airport security checkpoints across the U.S. “They are incredibly frustrated when those lines are closed.”
PreCheck was intended to reduce long lines by letting travelers identified as low-risk skip the process of removing their shoes and belt and taking laptops and toiletries out of their bag. The government aimed to move half of all passengers through PreCheck lanes. “You would improve wait times dramatically,” says former Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole, who left the agency at the end of 2014. “It has the potential to be a game changer, as I and others envisioned it five years ago.”
Instead, the program has only 2.8 million participants, a fraction of all travelers. About 7 million people have access to PreCheck lanes through other programs, including those overseen by U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Nexus and Sentri, for travelers to Canada and Mexico, and the Global Entry international priority service. Some U.S. government workers who hold security clearances use the PreCheck lanes as well.
One reason for the low enrollment was a decision by the TSA, under Pistole’s leadership, to allow members of frequent-flier plans to use the PreCheck lanes without signing up for the program. Often, passengers assumed to be low-risk were selected at random to go through the PreCheck lanes. The moves were seen as a way to advertise the program, by offering what amounted to a free trial. But they led people to believe they didn’t need to go through the PreCheck application and background check and pay the $85 fee, which is good for five years. “It was a huge misstep,” says Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security who now lobbies on behalf of clients including MorphoTrust USA, the company that processes PreCheck applications.
Last July, Pistole’s successor, Peter Neffenger, halted the practice. That siphoned passengers away from PreCheck lanes while adding to waits in the regular lines. The TSA’s projections about staffing needs were based on PreCheck meeting its targets, says Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant and a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver: “When you make that much of a misestimation, you’re going to see what you see today.”
The TSA is taking steps to increase PreCheck use, including a proposal to allow third-party contractors to handle enrollment. Some airports are turning to perks: Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, N.Y., has about 40 percent of travelers using PreCheck lanes, in part because it offers free parking to members. “They just haven’t sold PreCheck,” says Charles Leocha, the founder of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group supported by the airlines. “They’ve got to sell it as a benefit.”