Many frequent fliers are fans of TSA PreCheck, the screening program that promises to speed travelers through airport security lines. But after the Transportation Security Administration last month announced plans to more than double the size of the program, some road warriors are noticing longer lines – and sometimes longer waits – than at the standard airport security checkpoints.
“It definitely appears to me that everyone is using PreCheck and no one is using the other lines these days,” said George Reese, a Minneapolis-based executive for Dell whose PreCheck perks come courtesy of his elite status on Delta Air Lines.
In September, the TSA announced it was expanding the popular program to 60 new airports, up from 40 earlier this year. TSA PreCheck currently allows qualified travelers on seven airlines to pass through security checkpoints at 97 airports, with plans to expand to 100 airports by the end of the year, without having to remove their shoes or take their laptops out of their carry-on bag. In mid-November, Southwest will join Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, US Airways and Virgin America in offering the program to eligible passengers, with JetBlue also planning to participate soon.
But some travelers say that the increased number of PreCheck passengers are slowing them down.
“The ranks of eligible travelers have swollen to include many who don't even know what TSA PreCheck access entitles them to,” said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. “It's another example of a government program bloating beyond its means and becoming the victim of its own success.”
Although the TSA won’t disclose the number of PreCheck participants, the agency says 18 million passengers have gone through the PreCheck lanes since the program was rolled out in airports around the country starting in October 2011. Some members of frequent flier programs are invited to apply for PreCheck by participating airlines; others qualify as members of an existing Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler program, such as Global Entry, NEXUS or SENTRI.
The TSA also occasionally allows low-risk travelers into the PreCheck lane on a case-by-case basis (check your boarding pass). By the end of the fall, the agency will roll out its open-to-all application program for U.S. citizens. For a fee of $85, applicants who agree to a background check and fingerprinting could be approved for a five-year PreCheck membership.
Despite the occasional complaints, many frequent fliers are pleased overall with the program.
“I love it,” said Miami-based Diana Plazas, who travels weekly for her job as director of global brand marketing for the DoubleTree hotel chain. “It has made air travel a little better and friendlier.”
“Easy as pie,” said Jason Rabinowitz, editor of NYCAviation.com. “So far.”
As the busy holiday travel season approaches, others predict trouble ahead. On several of his trips over the past few weeks, Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing, said infrequent travelers unaware of the privileges that come with PreCheck qualification “slowed down the line for everyone behind them.” He noticed travelers who knew what they were doing sometimes stepping around those who appeared unfamiliar with the process.
TSA hopes to address concerns about slower lines by expanding the number of PreCheck lanes and their availability “in order to enable more passengers across the country to experience expedited screening in the most efficient way possible,” said TSA spokesperson Ross Feinstein.
It may be useful to think about groceries when approaching PreCheck lines at the airport, said Scott Wintner, spokesman for Detroit Metro Airport, one of the PreCheck program pilot airports, along with Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta.
“It’s basically just like the grocery store: Often there are more people in the ‘12 items or less’ line than in a regular line, but if I only have a couple items, I still make it through the express check-out faster than waiting behind the shorter line of people with cartloads of stuff to buy.”
Another option: Envision a rosier airport checkpoint of the future, one where “the majority of air travelers are viewed as trustworthy people who pose no threat to others on a plane,” said Harteveldt. “The perfect world will be where nearly all screening positions at an airport provide what we now view as PreCheck, and the exception would be the screening that offers what view now as the slower, standard screening.”
Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.