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)