TSA’s Pre-Check is a bust

The TSA recently announced that its Pre-Check program has expanded to five additional airports, bringing the total participation locations to 40 airports. While the TSA is celebrating this expansion, it’s ignoring the fact that Pre-Check is grossly inefficient and is actually imposing a burden on ordinary travelers.

Pre-Check is a program that sometimes grants members expedited screening. You must pay to join Pre-Check. In return, at certain airports only and with certain airlines only, you might not have to divest yourself of shoes, jackets, coats, computers at the checkpoint. You might be ushered more quickly through security. Might. As the TSA states about Pre-Check on its website:

“TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.”

The agency says that there have been 7.5 million Pre-Check screenings since the program’s introduction in October 2011. According to the TSA, enrollment has recently reached 1 million people, meaning that on average, each Pre-Check member has used the Pre-Check exemption seven times.

While there are no statistics available on the number of security lanes in operation at any given time, there are roughly 859 security lanes in the 40 participating Pre-Check airports. As any flier knows, it’s rare to find all of the lanes in operation at any checkpoint. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at peak hours only 75% of lanes may be available, and during normal hours usually less than that are available.

Approximately 549 million passengers have passed through security at the 40 Pre-Check airports in the 19 months since the program began, or roughly 45.7 million per month. In that time, less than 1% of all screenings were completed using the Pre Check only lanes. Since these security lanes are exclusively for use by Pre-Check-eligible travelers, Pre-Check reduces the number of lanes available to ordinary passengers.

In the participating airports there are a total of 51 lanes dedicated to Pre-Check, with an average of 644 total lanes (based on an assumption of 75% in lanes operation at any one time). The actual number of lanes in operation is likely lower than 75% based on information on the TSA wait-time reports.

With 644 lanes in operation, Pre-Check reduces the number of lanes available to regular fliers by 8%, leaving 593 lanes for regular customers. In terms of inefficiency, the Pre Check lanes process roughly 33,000 of the 45.7 million passengers passing through security in an average month, or less than 1% (0.07%) of all travelers. There are 548 million passengers per year going through these airports. Pre-Check has handled 7.5 million passengers in 19 months, or 32,895 a month.

The most unconscionable example of the TSA’s “some animals are more equal than others” policy is the Pre-Check in Las Vegas. In keeping with that city’s reputation for pandering to the wealthy and the TSA’s policy of class discrimination, the sole Pre-Check lane in Las Vegas is exclusively for use by First Class passengers.

Some larger airports have multiple Pre-Check lanes, such as Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW), where 4 lanes out of an available 38 are designated solely for use by Pre-Check members. Based on an annual passenger load of 27.5 million travelers per year, each lane must process 724,167 passengers each month or nearly 10% of the number of Pre-Check screenings in the past year and a half. The 4 lanes at DFW represent 8% of all Pre-Check lanes and would proportionally handle nearly 31,000 passengers per year. This works out to an annual load of 7,740 screening per lane each year, or a dismal daily load of only 21 passengers per lane each day.

The 2012 TSA budget provided $8.1 billion to screen 724 million passengers, which works out to an average cost of $11.21 per screening. Pre-Check airports handled 76% of the total passenger load in 2012 with a proportional TSA cost of $6.15 billion. In other words, the cost for these lanes is fixed at $6.15 billion whether all 859 lanes are open or just 644 (75% of 859) are. So, depending on the number of lanes in service, the annual cost works out to $7.1 million per security lane or $9.5 million per security lane (6.15B/859 = 7.1M, whereas 6.15B/644 = 9.5M).

Since the Pre-Check lanes have the same operating cost in terms of equipment and staff but process less than 1% of passengers, Pre-Check increases the cost 100 times per screening compared to a standard security lane. This means that for every 100 passengers screened at regular checkpoint lanes, only one is screened in the Pre-Check lane. So rather than an average distributed cost of $11.21 per screening, the Pre-Check cost to taxpayers soars to $1,121 per passenger.

In terms of inconvenience, the reduced volume in Pre-Check lanes shunts regular travelers to the remaining lines. In the case of LAX, 3 of the maximum available 32 lanes (9.3% of the lanes) are limited to Pre-Check passengers. If only 75% of the lanes are available (24 lanes), that percentage increases to 12.5 % being unavailable to regular customers. This will add over 8,000 people to each lane each year when three-quarters of all lanes are open.

Nationwide, the TSA elite lanes remove 51 lanes from an optimistic estimate of 662 in operation, leaving only 611 to handle the 542 million regular passengers each year, increasing the load on the remaining lanes by 60,000 passengers each. This is further aggravated by disproportionate use by travelers: there are ample field reports of the Pre-Check lines at smaller airports going virtually empty.

It is becoming increasingly evident that this program is an attempt to undo some of the damage done by TSA Administrator John Pistole with his unpopular scanning and pat-down policies. The TSA is trying to create the illusion of progress without delivering a tangible benefit to travelers.

(Photo: courtesy of your tax dollars)

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  • Susan Richart

    Note: it’s been reported on FlyerTalk that both Washington/Dulles and Austin have allowed all passengers “pre check” screening recently.

    • Must’ve been because it was too crowded and they had to just push people on through. Did anyone there say? Meaning anyone at Flyer Talk? Did they say anything about conditions at the checkpoint, size of the crowds, anything?

      Not that it matters. The whole thing is a joke anyway.

  • US Patriot

    Here is a fix. Why don’t we ALL just sign up for PreCheck?
    Even for an occasional traveller, $85 for 5 years is a relatively small price compare to the total cost of travel (between parking, airfare, hotel/lodging, etc). If you fly once a years, at $300 round trip, a PreCheck ‘membership’ works out to $17 per trip, almost the same cost as the 9/11 hidden fee. I’m sure that some people will not sign up, but if you

    If everyone signed up, I have no doubt that PreCheck will come to a grinding stand-still. I’m sure it will tick off the “first-class” passengers (not the people who fly in first-class sections, but the passengers who think THEY are first-class); but more importantly, more lanes would have to be convert to PreCheck. Besides, if PreCheck is truly “better” than steerage class security, wouldn’t it be better for all of us to do it?

    • US Patriot, problem is Pre-Check doesn’t guarantee anything, as we’ve explained countless times. I understand what you’re saying about trying to grind everything to a halt, but even that won’t happen, because passengers get scanned or groped based on TSA whim. If there are too many people, the TSA simply moves them on through more quickly, or makes them all wait. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Pre-Check isn’t “better than steerage class security.” It’s a boondoggle.

  • P

    The problem with your math is that you count each screening as a different person when in fact, most travelers are repeat travelers (ie business people or frequent flier; the exact audience pre-check is targeted).
    You see it as a burden to the “regular traveler” but to the traveler that does the security lane 4-10+ times a month, the non-regular traveler is the burden.
    And your “first class only” pre check observation is incorrect as well.
    Pre check is for ALL PASSENGERS that qualify regardless of class of ticket booked. Example, AA at LAX has Main Cabin and Priotry Access lines to the TSA screening areas, pre check is part of the priority access line.

    And I enjoy using it.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      It’s not his math, it’s the way TSA counts passengers. Each encounter is considered an individual passenger, the repeat business of which is of no concern in their little world because you never know when an innocent can be turned to an alQaeda loving bomb toting mule.

      Honestly. Pre-Check should be the standard for all passengers, just not special little flowers like you.

      So, just so we’re clear, because that’s what I’m reading in your post here, sexual assault of the non-frequent traveler is acceptable and necessary because the non-frequent traveler is too much of a burden on you?

    • Fisher1949

      The math is correct. As you point out and as noted in the post, when TSA says that 2 million have used Precheck, these are often the same person receiving multiple Precheck screening. So instead of 2 million people getting benefit of Precheck, on 500K-1 million get it.

      Consequently the cost per taxpayer skews even higher when repeat users are counted as one taxpayer.

      The First Class statement is correct as stated. in Las Vegas, the Precheck lane is only available to First Class passengers. This is directly from TSA’;s website.

      I understand that as one of the elite fliers you are biased in favor of this program, but you should check the facts before making criticisms that are patently false. While you may be enjoying the benefits of expedited screening, it at the expense of your fellow travelers.

      That is the problem with these programs, they cater to the elite and 1 percenters who couldn’t care less about others.

      • A

        I use PreCheck an average of twice a week, and while I respect your opinion, I feel like I need to correct many ofthe sstatements that are just plain wrong.

        The PreCheck line at LAS is not exclusive to first class passengers. It runs alongside to and separate from the first class line. I’ve used it multiple times from last summer to just this morning – on none of those occasions was I flying first or even an airline elite.

        Also, passengers do not pay to enroll in PreCheck. Airlines can opt in their FF elites at their discretion. Individuals can choose to enroll in Global Entry, SENTRI, or NEXUS for a fee, but those are separate CBP programs that just happen to have the added benefit of PreCheck eligibility.

        Finally, to the commenter earlier who said that the TDCs randomly decide if you’ll be able to go through PreCheck-style screening, that’s not true either. At the time your boarding pass is generated, it is encoded with an indicator that tells the barcode scanner (the machine, not person) if you are eligible on that trip or not. The TSA agent is simply responding to what the scanner tells them to do.

        I am all for debate and differences of opinion, but I wish folks would at least work to get basic facts right to inform such opinions. For those of us that fly multiple times per week, PreCheck is a godsend.

        • Mr. or Ms. A:

          “The TSA agent is simply responding to what the scanner tells them to do.” Then it’s still random. As indicated in the post and by the TSA itself, it’s random.

          Furthermore, it’s still ethically indefensible. It’s the embodiment of All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others. Who cares if all the other poor slobs get bullied, harassed, and abused, as long as the Pre-Check elite get to breeze through. Right?

        • TSAisTerrorism

          Look, if you’re going to come in here and sanctimoniously tell everyone to get their facts straight, then, well, YOU need to get YOUR facts straight, pumpkin.

          The TSA agent, on a whim, can, and does deny PreCheck benefits even if the cute little machine determines one is eligible. Also, at the time this piece was written, PreCheck at LAS was ONLY available to first class passengers. It has since expanded, as you note.

          PreCheck should be the standard screening for ALL passengers until someone at TSA can articulate a credible and eminent threat that a particular passenger poses to gain additional scrutiny. Period.

        • A., quoting from the TSA’s own press release, dated July 19, 2013; Media Contact 571-227-2829:

          “The TSA Pre✓™ application program requires a background check, fingerprints, and an anticipated enrollment fee of $85 for a five-year membership. Once approved, travelers will receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN) and the opportunity to go through TSA Pre✓™ lanes at security checkpoints at participating airports.”

          And again quoting, as I have before: “TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.”

          In addition, I point you to TSA Administrator John Pistole’s own words on the matter:


      • gregs

        This post is riddled with incorrect statements least of which is the LAS 1st class only lane. I just used it last week and will use again tomorrow as Pre check not 1st class. You need a better fact checker.

        • The post was written in April. It was first-class only in April. It’s changed since then. Bill Fisher has already addressed this in another comment.

        • TSAisTerrorism

          You need better eyes.

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  • CliffOnTheRoad

    $11 per passenger is incorrect. I was going to use your logic for a car with 4 people when they charge by the car or by the person to show the error, but shall not.
    Budget includes more duties, such as cargo inspections, etc. Am I right?

    • Fisher1949

      The costs for cargo inspections and general aviation are largely borne by the shippers and GA operators. In addition, most cargo inspections are done in other countries and no TSA personnel are involved.

      These activities also only represent a miniscule portion of TSA activity with the vast majority being directed to airport security. So to answer your question, the $11 per passenger cost is correct and is supported by the TSA budget documents and FAA passenger data.

      However, please feel free to argue your point with one or both of these agencies if you still have doubts.

  • Agenda

    One “might” have to through the regular check-in even after paying for the pre-check? It’s mafia-like extortion. Americans no longer have members in Congress who represent them. They are part of the mafia.

  • Bill, excellent analysis. I was at Dallas/Ft.Worth last year (after going through the one metal detector only security line I use every time), and was watching the scanner action near my gate.

    I heard a guy complaining that he had joined pre-check but still was treated the same as everyone else.

    It was great to hear him complain. Too damn bad.

    He might have thought through first that you have to FIND a Pre-Check line, and Dallas/Ft.Worth has 2 miles of terminals….unless you know where they are, you will not get any ‘benefit’.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      I am so elated to see instances like this one where the program totally backfires. I predicted a year ago that it would be an utter disaster, and by all accounts, it is. I’m so happy to have TSA as an adversary. They really are the stupidest collection of morons on the planet.

      • Daisiemae

        Ah, but they are “highly trained professional” morons.

  • Kfred

    A couple personal experiences with PreCheck to mention:

    I was ‘enrolled’ in the program without my knowledge by my carrier. I never paid to participate but because the carriers want their business travelers to be treated better (I’m guessing so they would squawk less and continue to fly). I still cut my travel back more than 60% in the past two years.

    The brain trust at the entrance to the PreCheck lines randomly decide if you can use the line that day. About 50% of the time, I’ve been redirected to the regular lines. When I squawk, the response is just that it is random. Whatever.

    The promise of PreCheck to lure frequent fliers is an illusion even more than your numbers suggest.

  • Susan Richart

    Thanks, Bill, for doing the math. I’d thought of attempting it in a rejoinder to a troll at the TSA Blog who responds, without facts, to almost every anti-TSA comment. He must be a TSA clerk. 🙂