HOW THE TSA COULD RUIN PRECHECK
By Joe Brancatelli
December 12, 2013 --Great news for less-frequent business travelers who want a crack at PreCheck, the security-bypass program sponsored by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency has opened its first public application center and soon hopes to have as many as 300 nationwide.
Horrible news for every business traveler: The TSA seems intent on destroying the advantages of PreCheck by flooding its lanes with unvetted, unprepared and uneducated travelers who have no idea what the program is about or how to use it. That's causing epic back-ups at PreCheck lanes, which until lately had been known for their speedy service and civilized screening procedures.
The good news and bad are not necessarily related.
The public application center, opened last week at Indianapolis International Airport, requires enrollment, a raft of biographical information, fingerprints, documentation and a personal interview. At a cost of $85 for five years, the public process seems sane, rational and a good way to continue to separate verifiably legitimate fliers from potential troublemakers. If you get your PreCheck privileges via this route, you'll know what the program allows and how it's different from what the TSA demands of average fliers when they approach a standard security checkpoint.
But the TSA's new policy of randomly choosing unprepared travelers and directing them to PreCheck lanes once reserved for elite frequent fliers and members of Customs and Border Protection schemes such as Global Entry is troublesome, bordering on suicidal.
"More and more often, the PreCheck line is being used for overflow from regular screening," notes Jerry Scott, the frequent-flying president and chief executive of Elmer's, the West Coast restaurant chain. "Now we have the interesting debacle of inexperienced fliers partially undressing in the PreCheck line before realizing that they don't need to. PreCheck is losing its advantage for those of us who must traverse a security line several times weekly."
Or listen to frequent-flying New York lawyer Angelo Mazza after a recent flight out of New York's LaGuardia Airport: "I watched the person two people in front of me [on the PreCheck line] take off shoes, take out computers and toiletries and pretty much behave as if on a [regular] security line." On a subsequent flight from San Francisco International, Mazza reports "a TSA agent was assigned to continuously repeat, 'Leave shoes on and computers in your bag.' This was met with people turning around and questioning him as if he were delirious while still removing and taking out."
"Nothing like gumming up the PreCheck line with newbies who don't understand the rules," notes frequent flier Mark Troen, managing partner of The Winnmark Group, a real estate consulting firm. Or as frequent flier Janice Carpi vented recently: "There are people in the PreCheck line who have no idea what it is all about. And my wait was longer than it has ever been because of these yahoos!"
What's most amazing about these comments — and dozens of others I've received — is that they are all unsolicited. All from PreCheck-qualified fliers who contacted me after suddenly finding themselves grouped with unprepared travelers who'd been directed to the bypass lanes. And virtually all of them made one additional point: They don't mind sharing PreCheck privileges with more of their fellow fliers. What they resent is the TSA moving masses of unprepared fliers into what had become the one speedy way through the hell of security checkpoints at airports nationwide.
In its defense, the TSA claims putting throngs of general fliers through the PreCheck lanes is a "work in progress. Until we started adding more people to these lanes, we couldn't sustain 10-20 passengers using a TSA PreCheck lane per hour," says agency spokesman Ross Feinstein. "We needed to add some volume in order to allow us to run more of these lanes at additional airports [for additional] hours."
But let's back up and review the development of PreCheck because that will help explain why the TSA, not exactly a beloved federal agency, always seems to turn victory into public-relations hash.
When the law that created the Transportation Security Administration cleared Congress shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it called for private "trusted traveler" programs to bypass whatever procedures would be created by the TSA. But the TSA strangled the privatized programs in the cradle. Then came the PR fiasco of November, 2010, when the TSA rolled out controversial full-body scanners without much warning and absolutely no finesse.
Out of the ashes of that mess came PreCheck in October, 2011. It was the TSA's attempt to create its own trusted travel bypass plan. And it was, by any standard, a pretty good deal. Travelers chosen to participate would be permitted to leave their shoes, jackets and belts on. Laptop computers and toiletries kits could stay in carry-on bags. And PreCheck lanes used familiar magnetometer metal detectors rather than the unpopular and more invasive full-body scanners.
The TSA even dodged a built-in bullet — it refuses to guarantee PreCheck-approved fliers can access PreCheck lanes on every flight — and built out the program in a blur. It now operates at about 100 airports nationwide. After Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways were added in recent weeks, elite frequent fliers at all major carriers can participate. Many airlines now print our PreCheck eligibility on our paper boarding passes. Members of the armed forces were recently given PreCheck privileges, too. And travelers who didn't qualify via their frequent-flying status or Global Entry were anxiously awaiting the launch of the TSA's open-enrollment scheme.
But the sudden traffic jams of inexperienced travelers at the PreCheck lanes has once again made experienced fliers question the good will of the TSA. Many suggest the assignment of average fliers to the "trusted traveler" lanes proves that even the TSA doesn't believe its rhetoric about the efficacy of security screening. Some critics even suggest that the mass migration of occasional fliers to the PreCheck lanes is the TSA's way of further de-emphasizing full-body scanners, which continue to be unpopular even after the removal of the backscatter devices.
The TSA rejects all of the criticism, of course. It claims the temporary influx of inexperienced fliers to the PreCheck lanes will soon end.
"As more people apply for TSA PreCheck, we will be able to throttle back the 'random' passengers who may be using the lanes," says Feinstein, the agency's spokesman. "People who apply for this program know what they are applying for and will know how to use the lanes properly."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.