By Joe Brancatelli
June 12, 2014 --Would you buy a service from a firm that promises to make your life on the road easier, but won't guarantee that it will let you use the service after you purchase it?

Would you buy that service if the firm only operates at one in four places where you need it -- and then won't guarantee it's available even at the places where it does operate?

Would you buy the service if the firm also gives it away randomly to people who don't know how to use it and then slow the service so dramatically that you might be better off not using it?

And would you buy that service if your ability to use it were also contingent upon other vendors navigating an infuriating data maze to communicate with the company that originally sold you the service?

Welcome to PreCheck, the Transportation Security Administration's bloated and bureaucratic approach to providing frequent fliers with fast passage through airport security. The plan -- fatally flawed at birth, but initially free if you were qualified -- now groans under the weight of the TSA's don't-question-us arrogance and its flailing efforts to peddle membership for $85.

"On my last four flights, it has been quicker to go through regular [security] than PreCheck," says Southern California-based frequent flier Bob Geiter. "TSA randomly throws folks into the PreCheck line, thus defeating the purpose of an expedited passage," says New York-based frequent flier Mark Troen.

Or listen to Walt Christensen, buried in the bureaucracy at Lambert-St. Louis airport: "About 3 p.m., [security] lines are ridiculously long," he explains. "I look at my boarding pass, reassured by seeing the TSA-PRE indication on it. I follow the signs only to discover that the PreCheck line is closed."

Before we get buried in complaints about how the TSA is ruining PreCheck and foiling its own publicly stated goal of quickly moving low-risk fliers through airports so it can concentrate on dicier travelers, let's explain how we got to this ludicrous state of affairs.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress federalized airport security and created the TSA. But it also crafted two non-governmental options: Airports could staff its checkpoints with private security and third parties could create "trusted traveler" programs for low-risk fliers.

Questionable management and implacable opposition from earlier TSA apparatchiks doomed the privately funded trusted traveler startups. Congress had to pass another law to rein in the current TSA Administrator, John Pistole, who unilaterally barred airports from switching to private security.

After a rocky public debut, the imperious Pistole went on a semi-charm offensive. One of the results was PreCheck.

As envisioned in 2011, PreCheck was a business-travel dream: If you qualified either by being an elite airline customer or a member of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry, you were directed to special security lanes. You left on your shoes, belts and outerwear and kept laptops and toiletries in your carry-on bag. You passed through old-style metal detectors, not the slow, cumbersome and controversial "full-body scanners."

Yet the program had an original sin: even if you qualified for PreCheck, the TSA stubbornly refused to guarantee you could use it. As the agency is so fond of putting it: "No individual will be guaranteed expedited screening." As if to celebrate the random nature of when or if you'd be allowed to use PreCheck on any particular flight, the TSA created a cartoonish infograph to explain your odds.

Still, the allure of fast security bypass, even if we couldn't have it all the time, was an instant hit with frequent travelers. "It's great!" exclaims New York frequent flier Gerald Rosen. "Adore it," adds San Francisco-based John McGuinn.

The TSA rolled out PreCheck with lightning speed to more than 115 airports, about a quarter of the nation's commercial airports. It also widened the field of eligible travelers by adding more frequent fliers from additional airlines. Military personnel and other government travelers were given PreCheck privileges, too.

Then the TSA went public with PreCheck last December, offering it for $85 to any flier who passed security muster. But as PreCheck became a pay-to-play consumer product, the TSA's management missteps became apparent.

What to know when PreCheck lines are open? The TSA adamantly refuses to commit. Scores of travelers have been told by TSA screeners that operating hours are "classified," misinformation that officials back in Washington have been at pains to refute. But TSA management still won't publicly post operating hours. Why? Because there aren't any upon which you can depend. The TSA reserves the right to open and close PreCheck lines without notice or explanation at any time and plays the shell game all day at airports around the nation.

When lines are open, the TSA arbitrarily directs unwitting, unvetted fliers to PreCheck facilities. Besides the fact that doing so undercuts the TSA's rationale for its everyone's-a-suspect tactics at standard checkpoints, it slows PreCheck to a crawl. Not just because of volume, but also because the average fliers diverted to PreCheck haven't been briefed.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've seen the TSA do a cattle call, switching people to Pre lines and then screaming at them to leave clothes on or keep stuff in bags," says Sue Williams, a Chicago-based frequent flier. "People are dazed and confused because they don't know what's going on. And legitimate PreCheck fliers are fuming because PreCheck lines slow to a crawl as people take clothes or shoes off, put them back on, fiddle with bags and try to figure out what TSA agents are yelling."

Meanwhile, the TSA continues to insist PreCheck members risk exclusion if their so-called "known traveler" number and profile aren't exactly aligned at every step of the reservation and ticketing process. That means there are multiple chances for your corporate travel department, your travel agent or your airline to disconnect from the system, omit or garble your TSA data and get you barred from PreCheck on your next flight.

I quoted a TSA spokeperson trying to rationalize it last year. Just this week the TSA blog took a stab at explaining that any glitches in the data pipes are our fault, not the agency's inflexible and nearly incomprehensible procedures.

The folderol could be avoided if TSA issued identity cards to PreCheck members so they could flash them at PreCheck checkpoints. But the agency refuses to do it even though the Customs and Border Protection agency has no problem issuing Known Traveler cards to its Global Entry members. (TSA won't honor the CBP's card, of course.) If your data is not in the pipeline, and in the pipeline down to the last digit and period, there's no PreCheck for you.

"When providing an optional, upgraded service available only from one source, for a fee, the government fails miserably because it has no motivation to deliver," complains Louisiana-based frequent traveler Kevin Morgan. "Where else can people go? And if they start refusing the upgraded service for being unreliable, then the government can just close the program down."

There is something of a solution, however. Don't reward the TSA's arrogance by paying $85 for its shabby, customer-repellent PreCheck procedures. Get it for free by using your elite status with your airline or by joining Global Entry. It costs just $15 more, but also includes speedy Customs bypass when returning to the United States.

"I don't think I would pay for PreCheck by itself," says New York-based frequent flier William C. Horak, who gets his via his membership in Global Entry. "You absolutely cannot count on PreCheck to save time, [but for free] it might save the stress of undressing and unpacking."

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 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.