PreCheck: the 0.002 percent

In the latest round of self promotion, the TSA announced that elite US Airways passengers at Sea-Tac (Seattle) are now eligible to participate in the premium program called PreCheck. PreCheck is an ostensibly elite program that, for a fee, sometimes allows some passengers to get through security more quickly. It is not, however, all it’s cracked up to be, as we’ve noted in the past and as more recent news reports confirm.

The TSA has piloted PreCheck screening over the past year, claiming that its employees have performed 1.8 million PreCheck screenings. This doesn’t necessarily equate to 1.8 million individual passengers, since many have been repeat beneficiaries of this special service.

To put this in perspective, the TSA screens 1.9 million passengers a day. So it has tested PreCheck on less than one day’s worth of screening activity.

As the TSA elite lines are becoming more visible at some major airports, routine fliers who have not attained road warrior status are beginning to grumble that while they’re paying the same amount, other people are getting preferential treatment. In a bizarre variation of PreCheck, Canadian security at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has gone so far as to grant special treatment for American Express Platinum Card holders. If this trend continues, it doesn’t bode well for infrequent travelers (or anyone not rich enough to afford American Express Platinum).

While the TSA promotes PreCheck as a major advance, the fact is that the program is extremely limited. The actual number of PreCheck screenings to date represents only 0.0025% of the 696,000,000 passengers who fly in the US each year.

As it stands, PreCheck is available on a limited basis to elite fliers on only five airlines — United, U.S. Airways, Alaska, American, and Delta. So far, the low-cost non-legacy carriers Southwest, Jet Blue, and Spirit have not been invited to participate. The participating airlines must have a dominant presence at one or more of 20 designated airports.

Keep in mind, though, that just because you’re a member of PreCheck doesn’t mean you’ll get treated the same at all airports. The same United Airlines passenger who receives special treatment at Chicago’s O’Hare might not be eligible when departing from Pittsburgh.

The current participating airports, according to the TSA website, with FAA-reported annual volume are:

• Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI); 10.3 million/year
• Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT); 18.6 million/year
• Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) – 3.9 million/year
• Denver International Airport (DEN) – 25.2 million/year
• Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) – 10.8 million/year
• George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) 19.5 million/year
• Honolulu International Airport (HNL) – 8.7 million/year
• Indianapolis International Airport (IND) – 3.7 million/year
• Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) – 6.0 million/year
• Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) – 4.0 million/year
• Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) – 4.2 million/year
• Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) – 16.5 million/year
• Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) – 14.9 million/year
• Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) – 18.9 million/year
• Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) – 3.9 million/year
• San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – 19.3 million/year
• Tampa International Airport (TPA) – 8.1 million/year
• Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) – 2.3 million/year
• Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) – 11.2 million/year
• Chicago O’Hare International (ORD)- 32.1 million/year *
*-{O’Hare omitted from the TSA website listing but cited in announcements elsewhere

Since PreCheck is limited to only 20 airports, the program favors those who can access the selected airports. It also benefits the airports themselves by enticing prospective PreCheck members to choose one of the select few. Consequently, a traveler in Chicago enrolled in the program will have an added incentive to fly from O’Hare rather than from Midway.

According to 2010 Federal Aviation Administration rankings, there are 377 airports in the US. Of these, 139 are considered Primary Airports, being large, medium, and small, which handle 712 million passengers each year. By comparison, there are 238 Non-Primary Airports, such as Santa Fe, that enplane only 22.6 million passengers annually.

The 20 PreCheck airports collectively screened 243 million passengers in 2010. Yet only 1.8 million people, or 0.7%, of those using these 20 airports were able to make use of PreCheck. Notably, the nation’s busiest airports, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International (ATL) and Los Angeles International (LAX) are not among the favored locations of this program.

Aside from the Orwellian nightmare that a government agency has now declared “some are more equal than others,” PreCheck sets a dangerous precedent for government intrusion. It creates an advantage for some companies in a competitive private industry by encouraging customer participation in a private loyalty program.

PreCheck allows those who spend a substantial amount of money on one of the select airlines to perhaps avoid removing their shoes and belts, perhaps skip being irradiated while a stranger inspects an image of their privates, and perhaps reduce their chances of being fondled by a TSA screener at the checkpoint.

But as the TSA itself says:

At no point are TSA PreCheck(TM) travelers guaranteed expedited screening.

Unlike special treatment for soldiers traveling in uniform, pilots, flight attendants, and senior members of Congress, PreCheck selection requires membership in the loyalty program of the eligible for-profit airline, not a government entity. These frequent flier programs enable a traveler who makes frequent purchases on a particular carrier to obtain special treatment from federally operated airport security. This is equivalent to the government giving a job applicant hiring preference based on frequent purchases at Sam’s Club or membership at the “right” country club.

The first participating airlines — United, American, and Delta  have been the primary beneficiaries, as have been O’Hare, San Francisco, and Denver. Since not all airports or airlines are eligible, and some may never be eligible, those people who routinely fly on Southwest Airlines from Orlando to Detroit will be unable to enjoy the less invasive security screening that their counterparts flying on United from Chicago to Phoenix might.

A large segment of travelers fly regularly for work, and if they are in an area with a non-select airport served by non-legacy carriers, they will spend many hours more per year in security lines than their PreCheck counterparts. This creates a disadvantage for those business travelers relative to their competitors who use favored locations.

Many travelers are premium-level frequent fliers because they need to fly as part of their jobs. Those who have earned elite status know that the best strategy is to pick an airline with numerous flights from your home airport and always book with that airline, even if the fare is higher or schedule less favorable. For those who fly diverse routes from multiple airports, their activity with one airline is diluted, hindering their ability to reach elite mileage with an airline despite their flying over 100,000 miles per year.

This is an instance of a government program providing a business advantage to certain select companies and preferential treatment to a group of people based on their participation and expenditures with those companies. Aside from the legal implications, this program is divisive and will only further separate the privileged from the ordinary citizen.

As with most TSA initiatives, PreCheck exists primarily for PR purposes. It’s devoid of any security benefit. And it’s another example of Washington indifference to the public.

The PreCheck concept and its approach are structurally flawed. In order for it to have any impact in expediting screening, hundreds of millions of “trusted travelers” would have to be vetted, at enormous cost to travelers and taxpayers. And even then, to repeat what the TSA has said, it wouldn’t guarantee expedited screening to anyone.

Instead of wasting money trying to approve staggering numbers of fliers, the TSA should be focused on identifying its first real terrorist, something that so far, after ten years, it has still failed to do.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/UggBoyUggGirl)

  • Susan Richart

    “U.S. travelers will be chosen on a case-by-case basis to use
    expedited-screening lines at airports without having to provide more
    personal information than they now give airlines, the Transportation
    Security Administration said.

    Passengers will be chosen after a background check, before they get to
    the airport, the agency said in a notice to be published today in the
    Federal Register.”

    Allegedly, this “background check” will be based solely on the information the passenger gives to the airline at the time a reservation is made.

    “Under the latest initiative, passengers won’t have to
    provide personal information beyond their names, date of birth
    and gender — which they already provide to airlines to check
    against terrorist watch lists, the agency said.”

    • TSA will incorporate random, unpredictable security measures and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening, said David Castelveter, an agency spokesman.

      Same as it ever was.

      • Susan Richart

        I presume this new scheme means that every record will be checked for every flight. Even if you get a pass for one flight, there is no guarantee you will pass on the next flight or that your name would be put on the Pre-check list as a “permanent” participant.

  • Dubious Beagle

    Southwest doesn’t want to sign on to PreCheck because it competes with benefits from buying Business Select. One of the perks of spending more money with SW is that you can “fly by” security lanes. With PreCheck, you can do the same thing, maybe even faster, and no extra fee to the airline for doing so. They will eventually cave in, but surely they are weighing cost/benefits of shooting themselves in the foot.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      False. False on all counts. False.

      Either PreCheck is a front of the line pass as you intone here, or it’s a way to fly through Security Circus because you’ve proven you aren’t a risk as you’ve intoned elsewhere.

      Which is it?

      And BTW, the airlines pay for their access to PreCheck, which is why it is generally (for now) airline/airport/terminal specific. Southwest doesn’t shell out cash for things it sees as unnecessary. And that’s what their current PreCheck paradigm tells you.

      There is also a great cost to the individual airlines because their reservations systems must be configured to allow the processing back and forth of data through the PreCheck system. This is what is referred to as an “enhancement”. In airline world, anytime we start talking enhancements to the CRS, that is a capital expenditure that requires an IT project manager with associated salare, a dedicated team of various stripes, and a rather substantial budget. It therefore must demonstrate a business need that can positively impact profit. Southwest isn’t going to completely reconfigure their unique CRS that already doesn’t talk to these other-type systems unless they can see that they are losing business to PreCheck participant airlines. Therefore, you are unlikely to ever see them join PreCheck unless there is either a) a major paradigm shift in their FF base, b) a paradigm shift in large-scale project and budget management, and/or c) the way the PreCheck system operates on the backend is fundamentally changed. Every one of these scenarios is highly unlikely.

      • Dubious Beagle

        How does anything you said negate anything I said? SW doesn’t participate because if they did, their passengers would participate. Those who use Business Select do so for a couple of reasons: 1) it gets them priority lane access 2) It allows them to board in the first group (not much of a benefit which you realize if you fly often using SW). There’s the free drink (not really free now is it?) and the points as well.

        With TSA PreCheck, You already have your priority access. Late arrivals to SW flights can save some time by upgrading at a kiosk, but with PreCheck, no need to. There has to be a lot of money made on upgrades to Business Select (or BS as I call it). The alternative is that SW pays for PreCheck lane access and loses money on BS. That’s bleeding both ways.

        If you think SW is just too frugal to participate, what is their incentive to participate in priority lanes at all?

        I think Clear (whatever) will suffer as well. Why pay 200 a year to do what you can do in the next lane for free?

  • Guest

    Look, I am the last person who is a fan of TSA and I agree that they have screwed up almost everything. But Precheck is a step in the right direction. By identifying frequent flyers and those who have gone through Global Entry screening and lowering the cost/load of screening them, it is finally realizing that a one-size fits all approach to transportation security makes no sense.

    In full disclosure, I am in PreCheck both through Global Entry and due to frequent flyer status (I have flown at least 50k miles per year for over 30 years.

    • So it’s okay that non-frequent flyers get screwed, as long as frequent flyers don’t? All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

      And, of course, no chance that a potential attacker could be enrolled in Pre-Check. Nah, that could never happen.

      • Dubious Beagle

        Security isn’t about fairness, it’s about risk assessment and mitigation. If you’ve proven you’re not a risk, and you have documentation stating such, then I’m all for shortening the lines and letting you go through another way if it means I don’t have to stand behind you. I don’t get jealous. There’s nothing fancy about flying to work, it sucks, but frequent fliers need a way to lessen the stress. Those who fly only now and again won’t have the need for that kind of background investigation, there’s no benefit to them.

        • Enaylius

          Thanks for supporting the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution and standing up for Human Dignity.

          • Dubious Beagle

            How does the TSA checks violate your rights? You volunteer for them.

          • Enaylius

            This is an Aunt Sally. Try again.

          • Dubious Beagle

            You might not like them apples, but it’s the truth. Calling it a strawman doesn’t negate from that fact. Have you ever been forced into the airport and unlawfully searched? Well?

          • DB, maybe for people like me who aren’t forced to fly for work. But for people who are, yes, they’re being forced and unlawfully searched.

          • Dubious Beagle

            So if your work requires you to undergo a similar situation, are they also violating your rights since you choose to work there?

          • DB, it must be nice to not have to worry about making a living. Most people aren’t so lucky.

          • Dubious Beagle

            Regardless whether or not you need to work, you have a choice whether or not to allow a search. It’s tedious and invasive, I agree, however when it comes to rights, you’re voluntarily allowing them to search your person. Otherwise, your recourse is to avoid airports.

            Also, I fly weekly for work related purposes.

          • Enaylius

            Read the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution, US history which caused the American Revolution, read the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies from England. Then come back and try again without resorting to Aunt Sallies. Until then you are not worth replying to. You lack a basic understanding of human rights, human dignity, common law, and the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. I’m not arguing that you lack these I am accusing you of this lack. You are here to troll and spout your elitism and your own bias. You generate Aunt Sallie arguments through conjecture which is generated through paying attention to your own personal experiences only. You have demonstrated that you are a statist and that because YOU wish to put aside liberty for what YOU call security on the basis of your status with an airline somehow justifies your opinion when in fact it does not. You cannot legislate away rights, you cannot legislate rights, you can not legislate security. In the words of Benjamin Franklin “Those who give up essential liberty to obtain security deserve neither”. Your arguments will not work here Dubious Beagle nor should they work anywhere else.

          • Dubious Beagle

            All you have to do is refuse to submit to screening. When people stop flying because of the harassment, things will have to change. Blogs don’t change policies.

          • I stopped flying in 2010. I’ve been urging a boycott ever since. But this country is nowhere near the point of a national boycott. There are other ways to resist, as I’ve also written about repeatedly.

            Nobody’s claiming blogs change policies. We try to raise people’s awareness. We tell the truth. That’s all we can do.

          • Daisiemae

            Hmmm….maybe I should change the old saw to this: From the ridiculous to the evermore ridiculous.

          • Susan Richart

            I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t “volunteer” to be groped by the TSA.

            Any “consent” one gives the TSA is given under duress and intimidation: either let us grope you or your won’t be flying anyplace.

            No where does the TSA inform anyone of the extent of the enhanced body searches BEFORE a person is hauled aside for a search. They are even afraid to use the word “genitals” instead using the word “resistance” when explaining a search.

          • Dubious Beagle

            It still doesn’t violate your rights. The airline you paid to take you from point A to point B is located, knowingly, beyond that checkpoint.You make a conscious decision to take the more convenient route of flying over driving or sea travel. By doing so you consent to TSA searches. If you didn’t know you were going to be searched, you can refuse at any time and go away from the airport. If your luxury, business is more important than your perceived rights, you don’t have much to complain about.

          • Annapolis2

            “Consent” is moot because TSA refuses to inform travelers exactly how they will be searched. Surely the most basic element of consent is to know what one is consenting to. Also, consent can not be given under coercion, which is what the TSA’s threat to deny you access to your airplane, not to mention their implied threat to report you to law enforcement if you refuse their assault, is. Finally, there is zero validity to the government’s demand that people give up their rights in order to engage in a voluntary activity. Buying apples from my store isn’t required either – I could eat something else – but it still wouldn’t be valid for my government to restrict my freedom of speech or assembly because I chose to buy apples.
            Your argument may be a common one, but it’s hollow and meaningless.

          • Dubious Beagle

            The only way your rant has any bite is if you act on it. Complaining about the price of tea means nothing if you continue to purchase tea.

          • DB, you obviously don’t read this blog. Sommer Gentry has acted on it. She’s written about it countless times.

          • Susan Richart

            I know I’m going to be screened but I do not know that I could be subjected to a full-on grope of my entire body. I consent to being screened, not groped.

            Hospitals and doctors lose lawsuits every day over informed consent and, hence, are adding more and more information to the consent forms patients are asked to sign.

            It is incumbent upon the TSA to fully disclose the extent of any and all hands-on “pat downs.”

          • Dubious Beagle

            If you don’t know that, how can you make comments about it here? You obviously know it’s possible. I take almost 100 flights a year and I’ve never, not once, been patted down or groped. Usually that’s reserved for people who refuse to go through the detectors.

          • DB, translation: “Because nothing bad has ever happened to me, therefore, nothing bad ever happens!”

            Q. E. D.

          • Dubious Beagle

            Bad things happen to everyone. If I had the kinds of experience some of you drama queens have, I’d probably be a recluse.

          • Annapolis2

            I’m just going to hazard a guess that Dubious Beagle is not a woman who meets conventional standards of beauty – those who fit that profile are well-acquainted with sexual harassment of the TSA variety. Male screeners at BOS demanded on several occasions to put their hands on my breasts (for safety reasons, of course); others implied I was dressing for attention; others directed me to the naked scanning machine while hubby walked through a metal detector; and I was even once thrown out of the airport for refusing to let a known sexual predator subject me to a naked scan. This last incident was at Dulles, this man was a TSA supervisor known to the TSA to be running a local prostitution ring, and you can read more about it in our blog’s archives. I believe you that screeners are not manipulating the system to try to get their filthy hands down your pants, Dubious Beagle, but isn’t there an obvious reason why that kind of harassment would happen to others but not happen to you?

          • Dubious Beagle

            Yeah it must be because you’re so hot.

          • DB, that’s it. I’m taking the extremely rare step of blocking you. You not only don’t have the courage to write under your own name, but you’re also obnoxious enough to ridicule a victim of sexual assault. Take your garbage elsewhere.

          • 1amWendy

            Dubious Beagle, the TSA check violates my rights every time I [used to] fly. That’s because current procedures cannot discern between medically necessary equipment (in the instant case, a mechanical/electronic limb) and a threat. So I therefore do not “volunteer” for them – never will – and I have therefore been made to choose between maintaining my personal physical integrity and freedom to move about using the quickest mode of travel. Same reason I am now not “volunteering” to enter any courthouse – I do not consent to having my person subjected to search. So if THAT doesn’t violate my rights, I am perfectly confident that you and I do not share the same concept of rights.

          • Dubious Beagle

            So then no one should be searched or go through a metal detector when entering an airport or courthouse because you have a special circumstance, or are you saying that you should have a special permission card that gets you by these things and if so (and I would agree) isn’t that what the TSA pre check aspect is about in the 1st place?

            Let’s say someone straps a bomb to their leg and says it’s a medical device or a prosthetic. Or should they even be asked?

            No one likes security screening, but it’s better to be checked there than at the crash site.

          • DB, yes, because in all the years before the scanners and gropes, planes were being blown out of the sky left and right. All those explosive prostheses are to blame!

            If you’re so afraid a terrorist is hiding around every corner, do us all a favor and stay home cowering under the bed. The rest of us have lives to lead. (Though you’re more in danger at home; more people are killed by home appliances than by terrorism in this country.)

        • TSAisTerrorism

          Do you live under a rock?

          In America, we are all innocent until proven guilty. It is the GOVERNMENT’s job to prove that you are the risk.

          However, in the United States of Homeland, YOU must prove YOU aren’t the risk, just as you suggest.

          Why are you such a sniveling coward?

          • Dubious Beagle

            We are presumed innocent. Presumption of innocence by a court of law isn’t the same as presumption of non-threat by a security agency. I still lock my doors at night though.

          • Enaylius

            hahahahahaha the shill here is amazing. people like him are dangerous. apologists are daft

        • Daisiemae

          From the sublime to the ridiculous.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      I have to agree w/ Lisa here. I left airline middle management to pursue a different career. The background checks I had both for my airline job and my current career make what TSA employees undergo look like a kindergarten enrollment form. TBH I don’t know how that would compare to a GE interview, but since I’m no longer a frequent flyer, why should I be electronically strip search or fondled just because I’m not a traveling salesman anymore?

      I’m far, far less of a threat to US aviation than most anyone at the airport. Under PreCheck’s misguided nonsense, it doesn’t matter.

      This is America. Or at least it was. In that beautiful country, not long ago lost to the insanity of the United States of Homeland, we lived under the rubric of innocent until proven guilty. TSA turns the entire American Experiment on its head. PreCheck is just the latest incarnation.

      I’m glad you got yours. I’ll think fondly of you blithely gliding through Security Circus while my balls are tickled by one of Pistole’s Perverts.

      • Dubious Beagle

        What makes you less of a threat than almost anyone else at the Airport? That’s just hyperbole.

        • Fisher1949

          Are you a TSA worker or simply a moron? I know that there is a fine line between the two.

          • Dubious Beagle

            What makes one person less of a threat than “almost anyone”? Care to explain or are you just here to vent?

          • Daisiemae

            Hear! Hear!

            Frankly, I’m sick of this imbecile. If we ignore him, maybe he’ll move on to the next scratching post.

        • Annapolis2

          TSAisTerrorism described exactly why he’s less of a threat than almost anyone else at the airport – because he’s passed extremely detailed background checks that are more extensive than those conducted on almost anyone else at the airport. Although my view is that no one at the airport is a threat to my safety, except for the blue-gloved radiation-wielding pervert thieves and harassers of TSA.

    • Amy Alkon

      Sorry, but why should I have to pay to not have my constitutional rights stripped away? The TSA is not keeping us safe — it is training us to have our rights stripped from us as a normal course of daily life.

  • If you are going to have a “needle in the haystack” screening program one of the first things you need to so is make the size of the haystack smaller. One way to do this is to reduce the number of people you have to screen and logically vetted “Global Entry” users and very frequent flyers are extremely unlikely to be problems.

    Is it likely that someone who has been through the extensive Global Entry vetting process or someone who flies a hundred thousand mile a year and has done for five years or more years is likely to be a hijacker? If it is then we have a lot more problem than the TSA screening process will EVER find.

    A major part of the problem is that TSA is still a one-size fits all process and their “At no point are TSA PreCheck(TM) travelers guaranteed expedited screening” disclaimer is clear indication that they cannot get beyond the grope and search mindset and into a risk based environment. The entire system is based on incompetence and needs to be dismantled.

    • John, so what is the magic threshold for miles flown per year that makes one passenger less of a risk than another? 25,000? 50,000? 100,000? Is a passenger who flies weekly on the Delta Shuttle between NY and Boston more of a risk than another passenger who flies three times a year to Australia, racking up many more miles in the process? Is a passenger who flies 100,000 across several airlines more of a risk than another who flies those same 100,000 miles all on one airline and therefore has acquired status?

      How about a passenger who has flown hundreds of times over the past 20 years, but never enough to acquire status in any one year? Is that person more of a threat?

      The entire PreCheck scheme is an extortion racket, nothing more.

      • Dubious Beagle

        What’s the magic threshold for who you trust in your home? How long do you have to know them? Is it 1 year? Less? more?

  • Actually your article is wrong on two counts:

    1. Miami International is on the list for American Airlines passengers
    2. Members of the Customs and Boarder Protection “Global Entry” program are automatically eligible for “Pre-Check” at airports where it is in use. For “Global Entry” passengers they have been vetted by CBP to enter the US without speaking with a border protection officer.

    However I have every confidence that TSA will not screw this up beyond belief.

  • Give TSA credit for one thing: they have perfected the shell game.
    (1) Impose burdensome, unnecessary and probably illegal conditions on travel.
    (2) Then offer a way to avoid those conditions.
    (3) Then disqualify most travelers from using the program and turn the service off most of the time for most of those who remain.

    Coming next: don’t like TSA testing your drink? Purchase your pre-screened, Pistole-approved coffee from the TSA latte stand!

  • Eleanordew

    Is this a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen?

  • And because a passenger won’t know whether he has been deemed worthy until he flashes his boarding pass at the checkpoint queue, he or she still has to show up early enough to account for the usual checkpoint experience.

    PreCheck is nothing more than a government-sanctioned protection money racket. A shame that all mainstream media articles about it read like TSA press releases and show no independent analysis, unlike the above.

  • Drontil

    Note that all of the above-listed airports have the word “international” in their name (except one which used “intercontinental”). However, PreCheck is apparently no valid for international travel.