TSA’s PreCheck Trusted Traveler Program Is a Good Idea, But Has Some Big Flaws

The TSA has rolled out the test phase of its PreCheck trusted traveler program at American’s hubs at Miami and Dallas/Ft. Worth and Delta’s hubs at Atlanta and Detroit. As an AA Platinum member flying mostly out of Miami (MIA), I volunteered and got selected.

So far, I’ve used the program twice—and both times I did not have to remove my shoes, belt, or jacket, nor did I have to take anything out of my bag (neither laptop nor liquids).

A news story last week said that 280,000 frequent flyers like me are now taking part—and the reaction of those going through the special PreCheck lane the times I’ve done this were the same as mine: “This is great!”

Except for one thing. The way PreCheck is currently set up, participants must still wait in the same long lines to get to the TSA document checker, which is the point at which the participant is either directed to the special screening lane or to the regular lanes. That puts the lie to the Aviation Daily headline of Oct. 5, 2011, “TSA Rolls Out Pre-Screening Program to Reduce Wait Times.” Well, OK, it eliminates the few extra minutes that it takes to partially disrobe and unpack, and eliminates the longer dwell time for a body-scan versus the metal detector in the PreCheck lane. But it does nothing to reduce the need to get to the airport just as much ahead of time as before, due to the unpredictable line lengths and hence unpredictable waiting time. That was gist of the spontaneous comments of several of my fellow participants earlier this week.

There is obviously a security need to build in an element of randomness in any trusted traveler program. But that does not require making participants wait in the same long lines as everybody else. Instead, some small fraction of those showing up for the special lane could be singled out, with apologies, and required to go through the regular lane (but still without having to have waited in the long regular line).

There are also a couple of other security flaws in the pilot program. First, there is no real background check, only a flight history check. Second, there is no biometric ID card to prove that the person who shows up at the checkpoint is actually the person who was admitted to the program. And that is simply bizarre, since all the other trusted traveler programs operated by TSA’s sister agency—Customs & Border Protection—do include both of those features. Those programs are Global Entry (for frequent international air travelers), NEXUS (for U.S.-Canada frequent border-crossers), SENTRI (for frequent U.S.-Mexico land border crossers), and FAST (for importers, carriers, and commercial drivers). All four programs require both a criminal history background check and a biometric ID card. The same is true of TSA’s requirement for airport workers who have access to secure areas of the airport. Why should PreCheck be any different?

TSA Administrator John Pistole told members of the Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee on Nov. 2nd that PreCheck is proving to be popular and is likely to be expanded. That’s good news, but in crafting the successor program, I hope TSA will fix the pilot program’s three flaws by adding a separate line for participants, a real background check, and a biometric ID card. I’d be willing to pay an annual membership fee for that kind of program, and there is good evidence that large numbers of other frequent flyers would do likewise.

Reason’s Airport Security Research and Commentary