To Pre Or Not To Pre, That Is The TSA’s Question….

        Before 9-11, I was a last minute, last-on-the-plane, wheels-up type of passenger.

         I remember being late for a flight to Greenville, MS, and I was allowed to run onto the tarmac and wave to the pilot screaming “Wait for me,” as if I was trying to flag down a bus on 5th Avenue.

         The carefree nature of travel back then allowed me to bring whatever I wanted through security – from 4 pounds of Zabar’s rice pudding to a 5 ft. tall pool cue – and permitted me the latitude of breezing on board with a wink to the Captain inside the open cockpit and a smile to the flight attendant who ushered me on board before securing the door behind me.

         Once the TSA got tough on travel, the fun stopped, and I, like millions of others, was hassled over innocent items from sandwiches to shampoo in my carry-on luggage. I was told to get to the airport hours early, discard my bottled water, wait patiently on long lines and to go to a private room where a female TSA agent checked out the security threat of the underwire in my bra.

         Then came TSA Pre®, an expedited security screening program that’s designed to connect travelers departing from airports within the United States with smarter security and a better air travel experience.

         As a frequent flier who is considered low-risk and qualified for the program by passing a background check and fingerprint screening, I am now considered a “trusted traveler” with my own “KTN” or known traveler number.

         That means at more than 150 airports and 13 participating airlines, including Air Canada, Hawaiian Airlines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Virgin America, Allegiant Airlines, OneJet, WestJet, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Sun Country, my special TSA Pre® indicator on my boarding pass allows me to pass through an express security lane with minimal inconvenience.

         With TSA Pre®, I no longer remove my shoes, belt and light jacket, take out my laptop from my bag, or throw away all liquids before walking through a standard metal detector rather than the intrusive full-body scanner on my final approach to my gate.

         At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, that means I get to zig while most people have to zag. I am directed to a special non-stop TSA Pre® line that has always been shorter and faster than the normal security routes.

         While the 4-year-old TSA PreCheck has been a game changer for me, for the TSA? Not so much.

         According to a report by Scott Mayerowitz, an airline reporter for The Associated Press, the program hasn’t really taken off and, as a result, the TSA is preparing to contend with very long security lines this summer travel season.

         Mayerowitz reports the TSA cut its airport screener staff by 10 percent in the past three years, expecting PreCheck to speed up the process. TSA’s goal was to have 25 million fliers enrolled in the program by now, but Mayerowitz finds only 250,000 to 300,000 people are joining every month, making their target in range a distant 4 years away.

         At the beginning of March, only 9.3 million people paid the $85 to become PreCheck members. Conversely, Mayerowitz finds the number of annual fliers passing through checkpoints has grown from 643 million to more than 700 million. Mayerowitz reports just 26 percent of passengers were screened through PreCheck by February, and during mid-March, 6,800 American Airlines passengers missed their flights because of long checkpoint lines.

         Mayerowitz reports PreCheck lanes can screen 300 passengers an hour, twice that of standard lanes. That’s why the TSA tried to incorporate some new programs into PreCheck, like allowing loyalists who flew more than 50,000 miles a year with an airline to get PreCheck status. Through “Managed Inclusion” TSA agents randomly selected people out of the long normal line to go through the PreCheck line for expedited screening.

         But efforts like these have been scaled back. Mayerowitz reports several TSA security lapses forced the TSA to revert to the original PreCheck standards. And while the TSA has been tempted to pull the staff from empty PreCheck security lanes, they continue to keep them operational to accommodate the occasional legitimate member.

         Many airports claim they are experiencing security line wait times of up to 90 minutes, keeping passengers in a frustrating holding pattern. Airlines are instructing their customers to show up at least 2 hours early or risk missing their flight.

         As a vetted air passenger, I am grateful to have the TSA Pre® distinction, and hope more people join so the TSA doesn’t tamper with the program.

         The AP’s Mayerowitz reports there is a bright side to the turbulence. The TSA revealed a direct correlation between longer lines and an increase in PreCheck enrollments.


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