The TSA doesn’t like long lines ei­ther

PreCheck par­tic­i­pa­tion lags, cre­at­ing longer waits for ev­ery­one Pas­sen­gers are “frus­trated when those lines are closed”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Alan Levin and Jeff Plungis, with Mary Sch­langen­stein

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.”

The bot­tom line Fac­ing crit­i­cism over long air­port lines, the TSA is mov­ing to re­cruit more trav­el­ers to use PreCheck, its se­cu­rity screen­ing pro­gram.

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