I was recently invited to sit down with a local news outlet to discuss TSA’s Pre ✓™ program from the perspective of a frequent flyer who hadn’t signed up, and questions its utility as the program stands today. To be clear, I do not see the program as a threat to security. Instead, the program’s benefits simply aren’t compelling enough for me to part with $85 and take the time to be interviewed and fingerprinted.
$85 isn’t unreasonable, and there is even an interview site here in my Kansas City suburb. The idea of fingerprinting and background checks don’t bother me either since I’ve been through both as a basis for employment.
Instead, the “gotcha” for me is the fact that while having never signed up for TSA Pre✓™ I have experienced it first-hand many, many times, and I’m just not convinced on its utility to me as a semi-frequent traveler. But why? It comes down to what I like to call the “TSA Pre✓™ dilemma.”
In preparation for my news interview, I wanted to check my facts so I called Ross Feinstein, Press Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA claims Pre✓™ is quicker, with faster moving lines. In theory, and even sometimes in practicality, that’s likely right. According to Feinstein, expedited screening lanes should be able to process 260 passengers per hour, over 70% more than the 150/hour in standard lanes.
Opposing opinion: TSA Pre Check: What Is It & Why You Want It
I first read about the program back when it began as a pilot in late 2011 and thought it was a great idea: Shorter lines, and I could keep my shoes and belt on, without having to remove my laptop and toiletry bag. Pure laziness prevented me from signing up as it exited the pilot phase and continued to roll out to additional airports. Then, one day in 2012 while standing in a long screening line at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX), I was approached by a TSA agent and told to move to a different lane.
That lane, I would later learn, was for Pre✓™ passengers and at the time was being underutilized. The TSA was diverting non-Pre✓™ passengers into the expedited lane in an effort to relieve the standard screening line and speed things up. I recall being excited to have been picked for what I would consider a complimentary preview. The excitement didn’t last, however, as I was randomly selected for an explosives trace detection (ETD) swab a total of three times.
My third and final swab was just as I was exiting the metal detector. This time each of the ETD machines needed to be calibrated, all at once. I distinctly remember watching the standard screening line continue on as I stood there waiting for at least one of the machines to finish calibration so I could be on my way.
While my first experience wasn’t ideal, I remained committed to the idea of expedited screening. The program was new and very obviously there were bugs; bugs I figured that would work themselves out given time. Over the next two years, I would be selected for expedited screening either via a “wave in” or by receiving Pre✓™ on my boarding pass. In most scenarios my experience did not meet expectations.
The TSA Pre✓™ dilemma is multifaceted
Over the three years since inception, enrollments have been lackluster. “We need a bigger base,” said Feinstein. To offer a preview of the program, as well as relieve pressure on non-expedited lanes, the TSA uses a number of risk-based assessments they refer to as “managed inclusion” to allow non-known travelers access to expedited screening.
Managed inclusion, in theory, should be a win-win for most. It better distributes workloads, is more cost efficient given reduced overhead, and most importantly it potentially encourages signups. One group, however, doesn’t benefit, and that is the group of travelers who have actually invested the time and money to participate in the program. This occurs more often than not in my experience: Infrequent travelers find themselves in the expedited lane, confused about the process, and compromise efficiency.
The second part of the TSA Pre✓™ dilemma is one of marketing. The TSA is missing a significant opportunity to help to improve the narrative on all fronts. I have never once seen an advertisement for TSA Pre✓™ and it seems all of the media coverage on it is negative, calling into question security issues, but more on that in a moment. Each day a staggering 40% of U.S. travelers receive expedited screening, with a large potion of that being through managed inclusion.
What an excellent opportunity to not only offer the preview, but also educate those who are outside of the program. Yet there are no pamphlets, no flyers, not even business cards with a message defining the program and inviting travelers to learn more at TSA.gov. Instead, confused travelers find themselves in an expedited line, stumble through the process and go about their day likely still confused while having received no marketing or call to action.
The final pillar to the TSA Pre✓™ dilemma is one which receives far too much attention: Perception of an inherent security flaw with the program, most often in the context of managed inclusion. To my sincere dissatisfaction, the local news piece which I had involvement in focused on this almost exclusively. Fear-inducing previews like “some passengers have been able to skirt routine security measures” and “could a snap decision at the airport jeopardize your safety?” are abundant and, in my opinion, reckless and misguided.
What’s the biggest threat to an airplane? A knife? A pistol? While these items can be dangerous, with hardened cockpit doors installed after 9/11, an improvised explosive device poses the biggest threat to aviation security today. – Blogger Bob, TSA Blog Team
While the TSA readily admits knifes and guns are not the biggest threat to security, they continue to tout each find they make. As a result, they directly contribute to the perception that small weapons are the primary concern. If that is the perception then it’s reasonable that the general public would be skeptic of allowing for expedited screening of those who haven’t been vetted with background checks.
— TSA (@TSA) November 7, 2014
Of course, we hear a lot about managed inclusion being random. “It’s not random,” says Feinstein, “It seems random to travelers [but it’s] intelligence based.” He explained that those who the receive TSA Pre✓™ on their boarding passes do so as the result of a proprietary algorithm which takes into account the individual traveler, threat levels between city pairs, and a number of other variables that for security reasons aren’t discussed.
But what about “wave ins” – that is, those who were not selected ahead of time, but are diverted from the regular lines into expedited screening? Feinstein explained that those at times have a random element but suggested there is often is more at play than meets the eye. TSA documentation on managed inclusion indicates that the practice includes the use of behavior detection officers as well as increased use of ETD and dogs.
I will continue to accept Pre✓™ privileges when I get them, but until the agency is able to attract enough experienced, paying customers or they bring an end to diversions I’m okay with standard screening. I’ve removed my laptop and shoes a number of times each month for over a decade now and I’m used to it. Plus, thanks to Southwest’s Fly By® Priority Lane benefit, I’m typically able to get through security quicker than even those in the Pre✓™ lane.
Oh, and that news interview which was the catalyst for this post? Here’s a link; just don’t believe everything you see on TV.