TSA’s Pre-Check is a bust

by Bill Fisher on April 5, 2013

TSAPre-Check
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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