TSA PreCheck is Both Amazing and Useless at the Same Time

As the TSA rolls out PreCheck to more and more airports I’m enjoying the opportunity to use it — shoes don’t have to come off, freedom baggie doesn’t have to come out (though liquid rules apply, and this isn’t a huge benefit since I’ve only been given a hard time about my liquids bag in my carryon on average about once a year for the past three years).

Mostly, though, there’s no nude-o-scope (and thus no opting out) and there aren’t that many people in the program yet. Usually there’s no line at all, just a bunch of TSA employees standing around by an unused checkpoint waiting for me to come through.

It’s a far more civilized checkpoint experience than what we’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade. It’s almost like… security used to be before 9/11 led to a federal takeover of airport checkpoint operations and science fiction plots began piling on silliness. It’s the first step in reversing the truest al Qaeda victory of all, that we both scare and inconvenience ourselves (not to mention the waste of resources and concomitant drag on the economy) every time we walk into an airport.

Sounds wonderful, and it is, except that PreCheck doesn’t actually save you time.

Sure, when you get to use it you wait in line at the checkpoint less, and wind up cooling your heels in the lounge longer. But you don’t actually get to show up later at the airport, because you never know in advance whether or not PreCheck will be available to you.

  • Will the PreCheck checkpoint even be open? I’ve departed Miami when it wasn’t, and the priority security line took about 30 minutes to get through.
  • Will you get the green light to go through? I usually do, but today at JFK I wasn’t cleared for it, I got only one green beep instead of three there. Fortunately lines were short and I was able to opt for one with no nude-o-scope (which begs the question of the usefulness of machines you can choose to go through or not depending on choice of lanes…)

Since you can’t count on using it, you can’t count on saving time as a result of it, most folks will turn up at the airport assuming a long security wait rather than risk missing a flight (or the stress from almost missing a flight, begging for help to skip the lines to make a flight that’s about to depart).

The problem with “pre-clearing” passengers is that those who are pre-cleared become the perfect terrorist mules. So you don’t want trusted travelers to have no security checks at all, or so the theory goes. And you want to “keep the terrorists guessing.”

Except that PreCheck doesn’t mean no security checks. They still x-ray your bags. You still walk through the metal detector. They still check your ID, as though that has any relation to security whatsoever. All you get is a shorter line (sure a boon to terrorists who are impatient), not to have to take out off your shoes or take out your laptop (just have the TSA folks scan peoples’ feet for exposed wires and call it good), and not to have to take liquids out in their baggie for separate screening (something they almost never enforce at the regular checkpoint anyway).

You give little advantage to a trusted traveler to bring contraband through the checkpoint with the PreCheck program. And allowing those who are approved the more civilized process (that we all ought to have…) would make it possible to save time, far less deadweight loss to the economy not to mention the restoration of the dignity of the passengers headed through the checkpoint.

For now, PreCheck is merely much more pleasant that the ‘regular’ screening process. But it could be actually useful if it were more reliable.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] I’ve made the point before, it’s a great experience. I admit, I love getting my three beeps and being directed to the metal detector and x-ray with no line, no nude-o-scope, and no need to take off my shoes (I don’t take my laptop out anyway, since I use a bag where it isn’t required, and I’m almost never required to take my Freedom Baggie of liquids out anyway). It’s far more civilized. […]

Comments

  1. I agree: if you have one of the world’s worst airport security screening system, and you make it a little better, then people will praise you for improving things. But, even with Pre-Check, the system remains shockingly slow and intrusive, and seemingly ineffectual at the same time.

    I regularly frequent European airports and almost never has it taken more than 10 minutes to clear security. You don’t have the ludicrous ID check (the airline’s already done that and will do it again), you don’t have to take your shoes off and you don’t get shouted at. There’s no evidence that the TSA’s systems are more reliable – in fact, if anything they are less.

    So, by all means, praise Pre-Check but still see it for what it is – a terrible system.

  2. I agree with your ‘lipstick on a pig’ analysis.

    There are three things that for me go in its favor:

    1. It feels cool to be selected, like the feeling from the unpredictable perks of elite status (will an upgrade clear at a gate, etc.) or a pull of a slot machine.

    2. In limited cases it saves some time upfront. While I was commuting between NYC and ATL I knew the ATL PreCheck hours and since they were moving so many people through PreCheck, even when I wasn’t selected, I was getting through faster than before. I was able to reduce my airport arrival time a bit with some confidence.

    3. When selected, it does save me time that I can productively use post-security. I would prefer to have that time pre-airport, but time is time, and I can get things done at the airport.

    Do these points justify the program? No, but it makes US air travel marginally more interesting. I am glad to be done with that commute and back to more international travel where people are still treated with civility in most places.

    The end game, however a naive hope, is to restore some sanity to the security process and hopefully PreCheck helps, so I like to be a cheerleader for the program.

  3. I agree, the only thing it saves you is not being subjected to the other silliness going on at the checkpoint. That said, I was selected for it twice out of 3 opportunities last week, and the non PreCheck experience verified for me that I’d rather be picked for it than not.

  4. I am a bit confused on how this works, as we do not have here in HNL. Is it a separate screening checkpoint and if so, what do they do if you have not been pre-selected? Do they make you go to another checkpoint?

  5. You walk up to the checkpoint, usually there’s a premium security line and they can scan your boarding pass to see if you qualify for PreCheck, if you do then you get directed through a closed-off line. If you don’t, you stay in the regular premium line.

  6. You don’t have to take off your shoes, belts etc? I vote for it even if it does not save me any time. I rather spend time post security looking at the tarmac than be in security line. I only wish all checkpoints have at least one pre-check lane.

  7. I got selected for pre-check last weekend when there was no line.

    Later that week, I wasn’t selected when there was a long line.

    Oh, TSA.

  8. I didn’t sign up for TSA PreCheck because it would save me time. I would pay 5 extra minutes per trip to stop the shoe carnival, nude pictures, and groping. As you wrote, “It’s the first step in reversing the truest al Qaeda victory of all.”

  9. I’m confused about your post, are they really implementing it as a separate area with idle agents sitting around? What’s the point in that?

    The recently restarted Clear at SFO seems to be everything Pre Check should be and isn’t. No lines, no waiting, ever. Yes, I had to remove my shoes and my laptop and deal with the non back-scatter NOS. Start to end time? Less than 3 minutes.

    -David

  10. I’ve been through pre-check twice at LAX. I’m very happy to be treated as if the terrorists haven’t already won: I made the observation that it felt like pre-9/11 both times. However, my liquids are still under scrutiny, so that’s one item not yet undone.

    But I agree with the author of this post. It’ll never save me time ultimately, because I can’t count on it every time. It *does* get me into the Delta Sky Club about six minutes earlier though, and I don’t have to worry about my pants falling down around my waist, which without my belt, is a constant threat.

  11. Delta pre-check at DCA terminal B doesn’t work. They don’t separate people until the security check-point, so you save literally NO time at all, the elite line half as long and took twice as much time as the regular line.

    Pre is a good idea that doesn’t work well.

  12. Based in Orlando, I always have Clear to fall back on when i don’t get the coveted three beeps, but that’s pretty rare. The first day Pre-Check was in operation at LGA, I didn’t realize it till I was directed to the new area — and already had the laptop out, shoes off etc. The TSA official told me to “put it all away” which I did, only to go through the checkpoint and be tagged for a random screening, where they checked my entire suitcase AND briefcase. While i totally understand random screenings, think it makes NO sense to NOT disable that function at a checkpoint where TSA has already DESIGNATED travelers as low risk! Truly, what’s the point?

  13. I have been in the PreCheck program for months and have yet to get to use it. I am happy the benefit was free on the platinum card, but somehow I seem to always be at the wrong gate, the precheck line is closed or its on Delta, not American at the airport I am flying. Never fear, I hold out hope I will get to use it before my 5 years are up. 🙂

  14. wait,do you mean you STILL have to be subjected to the random screening nonsense? and possibly NOT get to go thru the short line? oh crap!

  15. Been through JFK a dozen times and only once cleared precheck. The TSA supervisor at Terminal 8 says its AA that chooses, not TSA. AA blames it on TSA. Great program if it worked. It diesn’t, not even for Global Entry folks.

  16. Just used CLEAR ME in Denver(united), b/c the TSA Global Entry card didn’t work at all, no one knew what it was. CLEAR ME was ok, but so what… my husband went thru the regular line and was done before me…
    At Laquardia, the TSA Global card didn’t work either (united)… not a glimmer of recognition.

  17. I travel weekly for work on my project. Because I travel so often, I qualify for TSA PreCheck and love, love, love it! Not only do I get to bypass the long security checkpoint lines – I also do not have to unpack my laptop(s), nor do I have to remove my liquids. Depending on what shoes I wear, I may or may not have to take them off. Most heels require the shoes to be removed because of the metal. Overall, TSA is a huge travel time and hassle saver for me. NOTE: I have only used this at the STL (Lambert) C-Gate.

  18. Save your money. I bought the Trusted Traveller program for my girlfriend and myself last year. We are in Atlanta which is always busy and I thought it would be well worth it not to take off shoes, belts and pull out laptops. What a waste of money! My girlfriend has used it twice and there was no difference whatsoever. She still had to remove shoes, belts and laptop. Yes, she was in the correct line and yes her boarding pass had the number on it. She wasn’t singled out as they made everyone do the same. We shall see if it truly expedites our return from Europe this summer. Overall I rate it a huge fail. Seems it is just another scam or cash grab.

  19. Dave, how is Pre-check going to get you an expedited return from Europe? Don’t you mean Global Entry? Pre-check is only for domestic travel.

  20. Global entry, check. Pre-check sign up, check. Airline registration, check. TSA screening, no check! First time was not a charm. No line, but still had to go through full take it ofsecurity f screening. Maybe next time.

  21. thank you for this wonderful blog posting. I work at an airport and am also a student. I am writing a paper about how travelers feel about PreCheck and your post was most helpful.

  22. So .. your posting says June 17, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t this year.

    I’ve been in TSA Pre since United started it, thanks to Global Entry, and used it several times this past weekend (2013). It’s pretty great, still. In talking to fellow travelers I’ve discovered that most people are clueless about it and thus are not getting properly signed up, and are thus *not* clogging up the fast lane. I met a very frequent flyer on the plane yesterday who bemoaned that she’d asked United for it and they’d said no. But she’d not investigated any further. I possibly added to the competition by recommending she sign up for GE, but I doubt it. Most people, even frequent flyers, don’t have much initiative.

  23. used TSA last month for the first time, at EWR. It was fabulous. I’m puzzled about ‘asking United for it’…they don’t have anything to do with issueing the card. clueless. I was asked to participate in a panel by CLEAR ME. I did. I explained that it was very expensive for a minor improvement in just a couple of airports, and i was not going to renew.

  24. Yep .. As I said, clueless. But clearly the regular security doesn’t bother them. Me, I cleared security in Denver just now in the time it took to walk to the dude and put my backpack on the belt. At least a hundred people waiting for the regular security. Works for me .. Haven’t ever been “randomly” rejected in more than a year of using it.

    Precheck plus nexus/global entry have made travel easy again. No passport lines and no security lines!

  25. Precheck at Delta FLL is nice. 40 people in regular line, 3 in precheck. Where do you guys see that you have to get “selected”? The boarding pass has a pre check logo on it, so you can just proceed directly to that line.

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