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New Security Initiative Raises Many Questions

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PreCheck is the Transportation Security Agency’s name for its pilot trusted traveler program. The basic idea is simple, and has been around a long time: Instead of treating everyone the same, concentrate on the more likely risks and go easy on the low risks. The government is already doing that for some travelers in some systems; now, TSA says it’s ready to tackle airport screening. The idea makes sense and is doable, but TSA is starting out very timidly—too timidly for many of us.

In practice, the system is supposed to work something like this:

  • You indicate your interest in joining (or, in the beginning, an airline nominates you).
  • You then undergo a rigorous background check akin to a security clearance.
  • If accepted, you register some sort of biometric ID—as yet to be determined—that cannot be counterfeited or duplicated.
  • You get some sort of ID, most likely a smart card.
  • At a participating airport, you use your ID card and possible biometric test to verify your identity, and if (presumably when) you pass the screen, you bypass some or all of the usual security screening procedures.

PreCheck is starting out on a very limited basis. American and Delta, along with TSA, will select a few thousand very frequent flyers to participate in the test. The test will also be available to travelers enrolled in the existing Customs and Border Protection trusted-traveler Global Entry, Nexus, and Sentri programs when they fly on American or Delta. For the pilot study, facilities will be installed at four airports: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Miami. If the test is successful, TSA says it will expand to other airlines as well as airports that participate in the Global Entry program—currently, that’s 20 of the largest domestic international arrival airports.

A lot of the details are still unclear, however, and we don’t yet have answers to some big questions:

  • Just how much of the airport screening process will PreCheck actually bypass? That’s obviously the top issue. TSA says, “Eligible passengers may be referred to a lane where they will experience expedited screening. TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.” According to some reports, you’ll still have to pass through the metal detectors or X-ray machines, and apparently TSA will retain the three-ounce liquid and other carry-on limits.
  • Will PreCheck ever be available to ordinary leisure travelers, and if so, when?
  • Will PreCheck ever be available at hundreds of smaller airports, and if so, when?
  • How will PreCheck integrate with existing programs? Global Entry applies to customs and immigration screening, not security. The existing privately operated Clear Registered Traveler Program, and a few smaller programs previously operated similar security screening programs at 21 airports—including only a few overlaps with Global Entry—are currently on hold.
  • What will it cost? TSA hasn’t said anything about cost. The Clear program costs $179 per year, and Global Entry charges an application fee of $100.
  • How can I apply for PreCheck enrollment? For now, you can’t; entry is by invitation only (“Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”)

Presumably at some point, applications will be available. If you don’t get an invitation, however, you might be able to get in the back door by registering for Global Entry. At least one premium credit card—AmEx Platinum—is offering to cover the cost of membership for cardholders, and you may see similar promotions from other sources.

All in all, as TSA says, so far PreCheck is in a very early stage of development. Probably, as the agency and travelers develop some experience, it will be available to broader segments of the travel market.

Meanwhile, unless you’re a frequent American or Delta flyer through four airports, you shouldn’t figure on avoiding the screening hassles anytime soon. At best, you can hope for future relief before you get too old to enjoy it.


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