Experiencing TSA Precheck's Expedited Screening Program

Tired of waiting behind the unwashed masses which never seem to be able to separate themselves from their bottled water, belts, liquids and shoes at security checkpoints? If you’ve put off submitting an application for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) trusted traveler program, you now have another reason to stop procrastinating.

The TSA has opened expedited screening lanes at several major airports around the country. The “PreCheck” program started with a limited trial at selected locations last October at DFW, Atlanta, Miami, and Detroit. Originally open only to top-tier American and Delta Air Lines passengers who were already members of one of the CBP’s Trusted Traveler Programs, PreCheck has now been expanded to include any passenger who holds Global Entry, SENTRI, or NEXUS approvals to enter the country.

More than 140,000 travelers have already been screened at the pilot checkpoints. The program was expanded recently to include passengers traveling on Delta from Minneapolis/St. Paul, American from Los Angeles International, and both carriers from Las Vegas McCarran. In January, US Airways Passengers will be able participate in the program at McCarran. United elite travelers will be invited to join in at some point in 2012 – approval is pending merger of Continental and United’s information systems are combined.

I’d been invited to join PreCheck last October as an American Airlines Premier Executive qualifying traveler. A last minute change of plans recently left me scrambling to catch a flight out of Miami on a stormy and congested Sunday night. Taking the finally-opened airport people-mover from the centralized car rental facility (a pleasant surprise), I checked in at an American kiosk and proceeded to the elite line at the airport’s D-Gates. After my boarding pass was scanned, I was directed to a nearly empty security line – another surprise – as I had been approved for expedited security screening.

Once at the screening checkpoint, I was told I did not need to take off my shoes, remove my belt, or my light jacket in order to pass through the screening device. I did not have to remove my “3-1-1” liquids from my carry-on bag, but I did have to remove my computer from the non-compliant bag. I was through security in under a minute, and on my way to the gate in time to download email before departure.

Qualifying for the Global Entry program requires applicants go through a fairly rigorous screening process in exchange for the right to bypass long immigration and customs lines at US International Airports. Anyone who has the correct credentials can now opt in to the PreCheck program by entering their clearance code in their airline’s security profile – as it is no longer necessary to hold top tier status once CBP approval has been attained.

According to US Transportation Security Administrator Joe Pistole, better information about travelers helps the TSA to say “Now, we don’t have to treat each person as a putative terrorist,” according to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek.

While I usually feel most TSA employees act professionally while doing a very difficult and demanding job, I have to admit to wondering if some screeners DO assume everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Traveling with my 88 year old father at Newark last fall, for example, pre-warning about his artificial hips and other ailments did little to lessen interrogation procedures which seemed inappropriate at best, and extreme considering his physical condition. Terrorist, indeed!

Gaining approval in a Trusted Traveler program is not an automatic procedure, even for those who travel abroad frequently. The process includes capture of fingerprints (done neatly and digitally) as well as an iris scan. For those concerned about information captured from the microchip contained in today’s US passports, questions of privacy may prove to be enough to discourage registration. But compared to biometric data collected by other countries, the tradeoff might seem less onerous – I have saved countless hours of standing in line at increasingly congested gateways. The PreCheck program was an unexpected and welcome surprise.

Applicants should also be aware they will be subjected to an extensive, face-to-face interview at one of the TSA’s International Airport Offices. I faced a 30-minute interview inquiring into my reasons for travel to over 50 countries in the past ten years. As a self-employed individual, I also had to supply a copy of my most recent tax return. An unfortunately, I paid my own registration fee before American Express announced it would reimburse its Platinum Card holders for the cost of the Global Entry program – where approval is valid for a period of five years.

Would I register today knowing how much information was eventually collected? Certainly! It should also be noted there is no guarantee any given passenger will not face more extensive random security checks, whether entitle to PreCheck or not. With as much as I travel, the benefits easily outweigh my concerns – and with PreCheck expanding throughout the country, I’m looking forward to more pleasant surprises.


Rob Lipman is Executive Vice President of Summit Management Services, an international meeting planning company specializing in pharmaceutical research and incentive programs. He logs approximately 200,000 miles a year and visits at least five continents annually. He is an avid Cranky Flier reader and professes to be in search of “new airline experiences” and the perfect flight.