TSA PreCheck: Will it shorten security lines at airports?

TSA PreCheck is one way to shorten the long security lines at the airport – and the government's tradition of one-size-fits-all security screenings.  

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Travelers stand in line to go through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check-points at Los Angeles International Airport on May 31. With TSA PreCheck, the government is attempting to shift away from screening all travelers alike.

Experienced travelers check their baggage and follow the signs toward airport security. They step into a short and swiftly moving line, drop laptop-laden carry-on bags onto a conveyor belt, keep their shoes and belts on, and walk quickly through a metal detector.

This is no time-warp back to 2000. It's the Transportation Security Administration PreCheck system, a multi-level screening system that checks low-risk, high-frequency travelers separately and grants them a fast pass at the airport. The program aims to replace America's old notion of one-size-fits-all screening in favor of informed profiling, an effort to both reduce wait times and improve safety.

The TSA PreCheck system represents a new model for how the government protects US air travellers. In the anxious days after 9/11, lawmakers wanted a system to maximize security, so the airport screening system assumed no traveler was above suspicion. TSA workers would screen a family of four with a well-documented, law-abiding background with the same rigor as a new traveler with no known history.

But research conducted on the TSA security system has suggested this was not only unnecessary, it offers less protection. 

"If you screen everybody the same, you're actually making the system less secure, even though it doesn't look that way," says Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who created some of the research upon which the TSA PreCheck program is based. 

Security screeners search among passengers for the small percentage who want to cause harm, not unlike searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. A PreCheck system essentially splits the haystack, Dr. Jacobson says, telling TSA screeners which half has been searched already. Since screeners have limited time with travelers, they can work more effectively by checking fewer straws.

"Because you are using resources inappropriately, you are actually opening up very small holes, and if you have enough people trying to penetrate the system, those small holes can eventually create an opportunity for an incident," he says.

Other studies have shown further benefits to making airport security screening more convenient. Research by Daniel Simon, a microeconomics professor at Indiana University, and his colleagues suggested that because travelers turned to driving over flying after 9/11, the number of car accidents increased because more Americans took to the road.

"We find, in total, about 1,200 additional driving deaths attributed to the effect of 9/11, due to some combination of fear and/or inconvenience associated with the flying process," Dr. Simon says.

The effect dissipated by the end of 2002, but it shows the importance of considering the unintended side effects of a security policy, Simon says.

"While there have been terrorist events and scares, most of them have not been in the US, and the number of terrorist deaths in the US has thankfully been comparatively low," Simon says. "It's so much lower than motor vehicle fatalities."

Long airport security lines

Implementation of TSA PreCheck began in late 2013, but it has yet to achieve the smoothness or level of participation that researchers hypothesized. In May, air travelers met security lines as long as two hours, when record numbers of airline passengers faced heightened security standards following the Brussels airport attack.

"When you have more people flying, then you have more people waiting in security lines, even if you have no increase in security measures," Dr. Simon says. "It gets exacerbated by [extra screening measures] the TSA is doing...." 

The TSA PreCheck solution is taking on fresh urgency now. When it was launched, Congress set target enrollment at 25 million travelers by 2019, which would maximize the program's effectiveness by putting about 60 percent of all passengers through the expedited screening. But Americans were suspicious of yet another complication to their air travel and not eager to cough up $85 for five-year clearance. Just 2.8 million enrolled by June, as Bloomberg reported. 

Congress trimmed the number of TSA screeners too quickly, however, and the reduced screener staffing, combined with a surge in summer air travelers, created staggeringly long lines at major airports around the country.

Airlines and airports, sensitive to critiques of their customer service, took up the cause of line-weary travelers with airport gripe sites and threats to cut ties with TSA. Congress and TSA hastened to take visible action by increasing screeners, sending in bomb-sniffing canine units, and firing a top security manager, but they also made sure to advertise PreCheck.

The extra publicity drove up PreCheck enrollment around the country, which should, according to Jacobson's models, shorten wait times by at least three times for the checked and unchecked alike.

"They are doing the right thing, they just have some bad effects in the short-term," Jacobson says. "Maybe by Labor Day, all of this will be a happy memory – that we will all be happy we forgot."

Enrolling in TSA PreCheck

TSA has tried to make the PreCheck enrollment process more user-friendly than its airport security screenings. Much of the PreCheck screening is in hands of independent security contractors, who complete a background check and interview enrollees.

Enrolling in TSA PreCheck requires an online application on the TSA.gov website, which most travelers can fill out within 15 minutes. Applicants can use the website to make an in-person appointment at an application center, usually located in major cities or near airports, where they present a passport or the equivalent, are fingerprinted, and make the $85 payment.

"Pretty painless," said one newly PreChecked Cambridge retiree as he left a security center in Boston. "It's not so hard as signing up for Obamacare or MassHealth."

Cost and bother still deter many from signing up, but Jacobson advocates cutting the fee. His research shows increased PreCheck enrollment would streamline the security process so much that it could nearly break even on the program's cost. 

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