TSA opens fast lane through airport security
Prescreening to let some breeze through security
21 comments by Emily Gersema– Aug. 24, 2012 11:14 PM The Republic | azcentral.com
The Transportation Security Administration has launched a program at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that could allow thousands of frequent fliers to accelerate their trip through security.
The Pre-Check program, which begins Tuesday, will give approved “trusted travelers” access to an expedited line at the airport’s Terminal 4, which serves US Airways passengers. These travelers can skip some of the usual tasks that slow screenings — removing shoes, belts and jackets, and separating laptops and plastic bags filled with lip balm and liquids.
And although the TSA will begin the program at only one Sky Harbor checkpoint, officials hope to expand to checkpoints serving other airlines, possibly affecting hundreds of thousands of travelers.
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Travel-advocacy groups have pushed for expedited security programs for years. And Sky Harbor will become the 23rd airport in the nation to implement Pre-Check.
However, some fliers question the fairness of such programs: Participants must first qualify as frequent fliers, and they have to pay a fee and undergo background checks.
Some critics have said the government is treating the average traveler as a “second-class citizen” because Pre-Check is available only to frequent fliers.
But TSA officials say it’s not about saving travelers’ time, it’s about using their resources more effectively.
How it works
As Rochelle and Willard Mears, of Sun City West, waited to board a US Airways flight last week, they said they would like to avoid much of the aggravation associated with flying.
Willard Mears has had double knee replacements, so a trip through security can be tedious. “I go through the whole pat down,” he said.
To qualify for Pre-Check, the Mears, like other travelers, would have to take several steps.
Either they must accrue enough miles on US Airways to earn frequent-flier membership, or they must obtain special federal background clearance through one of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s three trusted traveler programs: Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI.
The programs charge fees — from $50 to around $122 — and applicants must pass an extensive background check, including an interview.
Once they’ve signed up, the frequent fliers’ plane tickets will feature a special bar code that allows them to go through the expedited screening lane at their airlines’ security checkpoints at participating airports.
Pre-Check participants also can bring their children 12 and younger through the faster screening lane. U.S. military members who carry a Common Access Card — including those with the reserves and the National Guard — also are cleared for Pre-Check.
TSA has no estimates on Pre-Check’s reduced wait times. However, customs’ studies show its trusted-traveler programs have reduced wait times for participants by an average of seven to 20 minutes.
TSA can remove Pre-Check status at any time, and the agency conducts recurrent background checks. If the government labels a passenger a terrorist, the TSA will add that person’s name to the “no fly” list, and TSA will deny boarding to the person and he or she could face federal prosecution. If a passenger misbehaves or harasses agents, TSA also can add the person to a watch list, which requires more thorough security screening.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the agency is working to broaden the Pre-Check program to other airlines and airports.
So far, the agency has focused on airlines with frequent-flier programs because “we just have more information about those people. And the more information we have, the more confident we are that they don’t pose a threat,” Melendez said.
TSA so far has access to frequent fliers’ information from five airlines: Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways. The agency reviews travelers’ information and, if they pass the agency’s background check, sends them an invitation to “opt in” to Pre-Check. Airlines have had to share passenger information with the federal government since 9/11.
In the case of Sky Harbor, the agency started with Terminal 4, Checkpoint A, which is the main gateway to US Airways flights. Generally, airlines rent a series of gates and a single checkpoint leads to those gates.
Last year, more than 40 million people flew in and out of Sky Harbor, and an estimated 8 million — 20 percent — were on US Airways flights, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
There is not a timeline yet for the program’s full expansion at Sky Harbor. But the program has expanded quickly. The TSA started testing it at Boston Logan International Airport last year. Since then, an estimated 2 million travelers have obtained Pre-Check clearance.
For years, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association urged the federal government to launch trusted-traveler programs after surveys showed people took trains and buses or drove long distances instead of flying — just to avoid the hassle of TSA security checks.
Although the industry group applauded Pre-Check’s expansion this year, the group’s president and CEO, Roger Dow, said the federal government risks further deterring travelers from flying if it doesn’t find a way to make its trusted-traveler programs accessible to more people.
“We must ensure Pre-Check is not just an enhancement to elite frequent-flier programs, focus on expanding enrollment in the program to average American travelers and allow greater cross-enrollment for Pre-Check passengers,” Dow said in a statement earlier this year.
Melendez said TSA about a year ago decided to expand Pre-Check because it frees agents to focus on more thorough screenings of passengers whom it knows little about or whom it regards as potential security threats, such as those on its extensive Terror Watch List, a large list the agency thoroughly screens before allowing to board.
“This is about becoming more effective with our resources,” Melendez said. “If we know more about certain passengers, we don’t have to spend as much time on screening them, so we can focus more on passengers we don’t know as much about.”
The agency has faced criticism over concerns about privacy rights. The consumer protection group Electronic Privacy Information Center has argued, unsuccessfully, that the federal government should limit which government agencies and workers can access trusted-travelers’ information, including fingerprints and Social Security numbers.
But for some, applying for federal clearance might be worth the hassle.
During his layover in Phoenix this week, Todd Hughes of Mechanicsville, Md., said he thought the program could be especially useful for parents with young children. When his wife flew with their young daughter, he remembered she would have to carry the child, plus baby gear, a stroller and her own carry-on items, through security.
“Anything that would reduce some of those steps would help,” Hughes said.
TSA’s Pre-Check program
The expedited-screening program is open to passengers who clear a federal background check and are frequent fliers with five airlines: Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways.
The program also is open to passengers who participate in these U.S. Customs and Border Protection trusted-traveler programs: Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI.
Global Entry is for all international and domestic travel; NEXUS is for U.S. and Canadian travelers who frequently go through ports on the U.S.-Canadian border; SENTRI is for U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals who frequently pass through ports on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Customs is working on merging the three into a single program.)
All three programs require an application fee. SENTRI costs $122.25. NEXUS is $50 to apply. Global Entry is $100.