PreCheck Becoming More Risk-Based

The Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program had its ups and downs in 2013, with the downs due mostly to an ill-advised policy of letting uninformed, infrequent travelers into PreCheck lanes, gumming things up because those people generally insisted on removing their shoes and jackets, and taking their laptops and cosmetics out of their carry-on bags. But this policy was a key to achieving TSA’s overly ambitious goal for last year of moving 25% of daily passengers through the PreCheck lanes, whether they’d been previously vetted or not.

While TSA has made no announcement that it is abandoning that policy, a number of signs point in that direction. The privacy impact assessment that TSA posted last fall explained the rules of the game for the new PreCheck Application Program now being rolled out, under which individuals are invited to apply for the program by paying an $85 fee and passing a background check. Page 2 of this document states in black and white that applicants will provide fingerprints and those prints will be submitted to the FBI for a criminal history background check. This is the first public acknowledgement that this kind of actual background check will be made on applicants, just as has been routine for the past decade for airport workers with access to the secure areas of airports.

Assuming that the expected large numbers of people apply for and get accepted under this program, TSA will no longer have a bureaucratic reason to move un-vetted amateurs into PreCheck lanes to make its numbers look good. And they will also have a positive reason not to do that, since the more word gets around that PreCheck lanes are no longer fast and reliable, the fewer people will fork out $85 and submit to an FBI background check in order to stand in a slightly shorter line for screening.

It also helps that all the major airlines now offer PreCheck membership to their premium frequent flyer members, and that PreCheck is now in place at 115 airports (as of February). Another recent development will also assist frequent air travelers. On Februry 19th, the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States announced plans for a North American Trusted Traveler program. It will be based on mutual recognition of their respective Viajero Confiable, Sentri, Global Entry, and Nexus programs.

Even so, one has to wonder whether TSA can possibly meet its announced 2014 goal of having 50% of daily air travelers screened via PreCheck. The number of its enrollment centers sounds impressive, but many are located at sites for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) which tend to be at non-passenger-friendly locations such as seaports. The agency would clearly benefit if it can get the promised Third Party Commercial Enrollment effort up and running. RFPs went out to potential private-sector providers well over a year ago. Yet TSA still has not reported either the status of this promising program or the selection of one or more winning vendors. What is keeping this important program grounded?

This article also appears in Robert Poole’s Airport Policy and Security News #98.