Phoenix to get center for expanded access to fast airport security check

Sky Harbor International Airport

Airline passengers enter a security checkpoint at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix on August 22, 2012.

David Wallace/The Republic
By Dawn GilbertsonThe Republic | azcentral.comSat Feb 1, 2014 11:23 AM

The Transportation Security Administration is significantly expanding access to its speedier airport-security lanes, where passengers get to keep their shoes, coats and belts on and leave laptops and liquids in their carry-on bags.

The government agency that airline passengers love to hate, in a bid to improve the screening experience for low-risk passengers, is for the first time allowing travelers to pay a fee for regular access to the coveted TSA PreCheck lines and is also sending an increasing number of passengers through those lanes on a flight-by-flight basis.

The PreCheck lanes, which debuted in late 2011 and generally move more quickly than standard security lanes, previously were limited to invited frequent fliers, members of a government “trusted traveler’’ program such as Global Entry, and members of the military.

The TSA was created after 9/11. Administrator John Pistole, in Phoenix Friday to promote PreCheck, said broader access to the program is part of the agency’s gradual shift away from a pricey “one size fits all’’ security-screening approach to a risk-based system that recognizes that the vast majority of the more than 1.7 million people it screens every day are not terrorists.

Changes began more than two years ago, starting with policy changes such as allowing children 12 and under and adults 75 and older to keep their shoes on when going through security.

“We believe this provides the most effective security, but does it in an efficient way and in, frankly, a more professional way,” he said.

The biggest initiative is the new option to enroll in PreCheck.

Enrollment fee

Travelers pay $85 for five years. A background check looks at such things as criminal history, citizenship status and whether the person is on a watch list. Applicants are also fingerprinted.

The TSA began taking PreCheck applications in December, opening an enrollment center at the Indianapolis airport. It has since added centers at seven other airports and expects to have 25 to 30 airport centers by the end of March, Pistole said.

He said a Phoenix enrollment center is expected to open at Sky Harbor International Airport in the next 60 to 90 days.

Travelers can also enroll at more than 150 satellite centers across the country, “Universal Enrollment Centers,’’ that accept applications for a variety of Department of Homeland Security programs.

A universal center in Kingman began taking PreCheck applications last week, and centers in Gilbert and Tucson are expected to accept them soon, TSA officials said.

The TSA’s goal is to have more than 300 PreCheck application sites across the country.

The agency is also in the early stages of exploring whether to also offer PreCheck enrollment via third-party vendors not associated with the government.

The TSA is testing data from two consortiums interested in providing the pre-screening service. Such facilities would be aimed at travelers concerned about giving the government private information.

The TSA would simply get a confirmation that a traveler has been pre-qualified for PreCheck.

“We just want to make it accessible to anybody who is interested,’’ Pistole said.

To date, 25,000 travelers have signed up, he said.

Granting access

In another less-publicized move to speed security for travelers and better utilize the PreCheck lanes at all times, the TSA has been awarding PreCheck access to select travelers who don’t have regular PreCheck access.

Some travelers find it stamped on their boarding pass, and others are directed to the PreCheck lanes at the airport. Both are deemed low-risk travelers, Pistole said, either in advance during a behind-the-scenes risk assessment using basic information passengers provide to the airline when booking a flight or at the entrance to the security checkpoint by “behavior detection officers’’ and other TSA officials sizing up passengers.

The latter process is called “managed inclusion’’ and was broadly used for the first time to handle last year’s Super Bowl crowds at the New Orleans airport.

Pistole calls them a “free sample’’ of TSA PreCheck. Both, like enrolling for PreCheck, are voluntary.

Paradise Valley residents Richard and Phyllis Stern were surprised to be selected for PreCheck for the first time on a US Airways flight last fall. At the airport, a TSA officer directed them to the PreCheck line instead of the standard line.

“It’s faster and nicer,’’ Phyllis Stern, 69, said.

Richard Stern, 77, was again selected for PreCheck on a Phoenix to Miami flight on American Airlnes, which he does not fly regularly. He likes the expedited security screening but wonders whether the TSA is doling out PreCheck access too liberally.

“Part of it’s a real puzzle to me,’’ he said. “American doesn’t know anything about me. I hadn’t flown them for years.’’

Pistole admits there are risks to expanding availability to expedited screening, but he said it’s not an additional security risk.

“I think we’re actually buying down risk,’’ he said.

Phoenix frequent flier Chris Coduto, who travels nearly once a week on business and qualified for PreCheck access through airline frequent flier programs, is more worried about the PreCheck lines he loves getting slower as a result of so many newbies.

He said he has already noticed a slowdown at some airports, including Portland, where he travels frequently.

“It seems like a lot more people are cleared into it that have never been through it,’’ he said.

“So you get people taking off their shoes, taking out their wallets, people taking off their belts. It just slows the whole line down.’’

Pistole said the TSA is aware of the issue and needs to better educate travelers new to PreCheck.

“We have heard that the last month or two and are very mindful of that,’’ he said.

TSA PreCheck

What: An expedited security-screening program available at 115 airports across the country. PreCheck participants have a dedicated security lane and don’t have to take off their shoes, belts or light coats. They can also leave laptops and approved liquids in their carry-on bags.

Who is eligible: Until recently, only invited frequent fliers of participating airlines and members of a government “trusted traveler’’ program like Global Entry were eligible. The government is now accepting applications for the program as well as selecting passengers on a flight-by-flight basis.

Cost: Travelers who enroll in PreCheck pay $85 for five years. Passengers selected for PreCheck by the TSA on their boarding pass or at the airport do not pay a fee but the access is only for that flight.


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