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TSA's PreCheck program reveals promise and problems

As both an elite member of Delta’s mileage plan and a participant in the government’s Global Entry program, George Reese could be considered a “trusted traveler” two times over.

Yet, based on his last two airport experiences, he could be forgiven for thinking the government doesn’t trust him at all. Despite being approved for PreCheck, TSA’s expedited screening program, the Minneapolis-based chief technology officer found himself directed to the regular screening lines, negating the entire point of enrolling in the first place.

And he wasn’t alone. “There were others, too, and they were obviously miffed at being shunted off to the regular lines,” he told NBC News. “The reality of the program being random diminishes a lot of the value of it.”

Still, and Reese wholeheartedly agrees, inconsistent access to the program is better than not having a program at all. First announced last fall, PreCheck is still a work in progress but has the potential to fundamentally change the way travelers get through security.

Currently, the program is available at 22 airports and open to eligible members of the mileage programs of Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Air, along with members of other Trusted Traveler programs, including Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI. Once approved, they’re eligible to use special security lanes, where they can keep shoes and jackets on and laptops and 3-1-1 liquids in their bags.

That is, unless they’re denied entry from the PreCheck lane, a situation that appears to be happening to a small percentage of program members. According to TSA, some incidents are due to computer glitches or ID discrepancies but the fact is that, pre-approval notwithstanding, guaranteed access is not part of the program.

“The reason we don’t give access to everyone all the time (is to keep it) random and unpredictable,” said TSA Associate Director Douglas Hofsass. “If, in fact, we had someone who got into the program with ill intent, we don’t want them to game the system by thinking that they’re going to get expedited screening every time they travel.”

Unfortunately, that also means that members who are no threat at all have no way of knowing whether or not they’ll be able to use the PreCheck lane before they get to the airport.

“The value of it comes when you can plan your day and not have to leave home three hours before your flight,” said Reese.

Frustrations aside, there are signs that the program is working — social media is full of commentary from people sharing their speedy, hassle-free experiences — and recent research suggests that expanding the program could improve airport security even further.

The idea, as proposed in a RAND Corp. report released last week, is that greater participation will allow TSA to use fewer resources screening the increasing number of travelers that they already “know” and reallocate those resources toward those they don’t, i.e., those who haven’t been previously vetted.

“It’s the flipside of negative profiling, which results in a lot of false positives,” said Brian Jackson, director of RAND’s Safety and Justice Program. “It’s about making tradeoffs in more sophisticated ways.” At the same time, increasing enrollment should eventually remove more people from the general security lanes, which should shorten lines and wait times for non-participants, as well.

And expanding the program is clearly on TSA’s agenda. According to Hofsass, the agency expects to have PreCheck lanes in 35 airports by the end of the year — the next will be Cincinnati, which will open a lane on Sept. 5 — and screen its 3 millionth traveler by the middle of next month.

Of course, if more members lead to longer PreCheck lines, more frustration may also be forthcoming, especially for those who are denied access.

“I’d still prefer to get it sometimes than not have it at all,” said Reese. “But it’d be a heckuva lot more valuable if you could actually count on it.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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