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

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.