$100 to Fly Through the Airport

Hate the full-body scans, pat-downs and slow going at TSA airport security screening checkpoints? For $100, you can now bypass the hassle.

Want to avoid TSA pat downs, long lines and waltz through security with shoes and jackets on, laptops stored and all the soft drinks you can carry? As Scott McCartney explain on The News Hub, there is a way, and it costs just $100. Photo: Reuters

The Transportation Security Administration is rolling out expedited screening at big airports called “Precheck.” It has special lanes for background-checked travelers, who can keep their shoes, belt and jacket on, leave laptops and liquids in carry-on bags and walk through a metal detector rather than a full-body scan. The process, now at two airlines and nine airports, is much like how screenings worked before the Sept. 11 attacks.

To qualify, frequent fliers must meet undisclosed TSA criteria and get invited in by the airlines. There is also a backdoor in. Approved travelers who are in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s “Global Entry” program can transfer into Precheck using their Global Entry number.

“It’s a completely different experience than what you’re used to,” said Matt Stegmeir, a platinum-level Delta Air Lines Inc. DAL +0.94% frequent flier who was invited into Precheck when it opened at his home airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Besides zipping through security screening quickly and easily, Mr. Stegmeir noticed another difference: TSA agents at the Precheck lane are usually smiling.

“It’s really a jarring contrast. It reminds you just how much of a hassle the security procedures in place really are,” he said.

Global Entry has been extremely popular with frequent international travelers. Approved travelers get to use a kiosk to enter the country rather than waiting in often-long lines to get their passports stamped and go through Customs inspection.

Consider that in January at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the average wait in line was 35 minutes between 4 and 5 p.m., and the longest wait was 137 minutes. The wait at Terminal 1 at New York’s Kennedy International Airport averaged 44 minutes in January for people arriving between 10 and 11 a.m. Enrolling requires a $100 application fee for a background check, plus a brief interview with a Customs officer.

For domestic travel, Global Entry pays off because it gets you into Precheck. Once TSA announced in the fall that enrollment in Global Entry and CBP’s other “trusted travel” programs (Nexus for frequent travel across the Canadian border and Sentri for frequent travel across the Mexican border) would get you into Precheck, applications for Global Entry took off.

In February, for example, 26,602 people applied, more than triple the number of applications in February 2011, according to CBP. And February applications were up 42% from January as more and more travelers catch on.

“We want as many people as possible in the program,” said John Wagner, CBP’s executive director of admissibility and passenger programs.

TSA says it also wants as many people as possible in Precheck, which is still in pilot-testing phase. Both agencies say the programs can enhance screening of people they know nothing about if they can move low-risk people who submit to background checks out of the main queues.

“We can reduce the size of the haystack when we are looking for that one-in-a-billion terrorist,” said TSA Administrator John Pistole.

Mr. Pistole, an FBI veteran who took over TSA in 2010, said that by studying frequent-flier histories as well as conducting background checks, he’s confident the U.S. now has the technology and the intelligence information to make less-rigorous, faster screening work. TSA has been trying to move to more “risk-based” security—something critics have suggested for many years.

Once in Precheck, TSA still checks names against terrorism watch lists before every flight, just as it does for other travelers. If a passenger is cleared for Precheck screening, a code is embedded in a traveler’s boarding pass.

Precheck members usually get to use security lines set up for first-class and elite-level frequent fliers. But Precheck travelers actually don’t know if they will get to use the easy screening until the TSA officer checking IDs actually scans the boarding pass. If the pass has the code, a Precheck passenger is steered to a separate screening lane for what amounts to old-style airport screening.

TSA says Precheck members are selected randomly for regular screening to enhance security. But that unpredictability irks frequent travelers. The agency doesn’t make travelers go to the end of the regular screening line, however, but instead slips them into the front of the regular queue.

“I like Precheck, but it would be much more valuable to me if I were able to know before leaving for the airport whether or not I had Precheck approval for that day’s flights,” said Beth Allen, a University of Minnesota economist and frequent traveler.

Gary Kaminsky, who travels 100,000 miles a year domestically, says he’s gotten Precheck screening on about 80% of his trips so far out of Los Angeles International Airport, his home base, on AMR Corp.’s American Airlines. “When it does work, it’s phenomenal,” he said. “It cuts security screening down to about 30 seconds.”

For now, travelers say Precheck lanes are almost always empty—no waiting. In fact, Precheck may be making regular lines longer since equipment and officers are devoted to a little-used lane. Mr. Pistole said that will change as the program expands and the agency collects more data.

Currently, TSA is working with only two airlines, American and Delta, because they were able to handle computing requirements set by TSA for the frequent-flier aspect. Even if you get into Precheck through Global Entry, it will currently only work for you on American and Delta domestic flights at airports with Precheck lanes.

Also, Precheck lanes are in place only at nine airports. Currently, American passengers can use it in Dallas-Fort Worth, New York Kennedy, Los Angeles and Miami. Delta passengers have Precheck access in Atlanta, Detroit and Salt Lake City. Passengers on both airlines can use Precheck in Las Vegas and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Later this month, Precheck is set to expand to Washington’s Reagan National Airport for Delta passengers and certain members of the U.S. military, and Chicago O’Hare with American.

By the end of the year, Mr. Pistole said Precheck will be in place at 35 airports and six airlines, covering most major U.S. airports and airlines. Expansion will continue in 2013, but Precheck probably won’t be available at all 450 commercial airports, since many have a small number of travelers each day. “The goal is to cover the broadest cross-section of travelers,” he said.

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