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U.S. Airports Suffer Security Delays—Are You to Blame for Rejecting TSA PreCheck?

The TSA PreCheck program was supposed to make airport security inspections faster for many people. By paying $85 for five years and going through a background screening process (fingerprints, interview, and so on), passengers could earn the right to speed through a speedier TSA checkpoint lane, without having to remove coats, shoes, liquids, and laptops from bags.

One problem: Not enough people are doing it, but foolishly, the TSA had already reduced staffing—to please Congress-mandated budget cuts—in anticipation of more signups.

Nationwide, TSA staffing was decreased by 10 percent in the expectation that more passengers would sign up for the TSA PreCheck program. But although some 25 million were expected, only a little over 9 million actually entered the program. Too late—TSA staff had already been downsized. 

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Compounding that, some airports have see a rise in usage. Detroit, for example, saw its ridership increase by 8 percent even as TSA agents decreased. Now, the airport is warning customers to show up 90 minutes before domestic flights and two hours before international ones.

For a while, the TSA tried giving the hoi polloi a taste of what the faster line was like—it would randomly summon people out of the slower main line and into the quick TSA Pre line. But that had some negative side effects. First, getting it for free didn't induce passengers to sign up for TSA Pre because it gave them hope that they might be able to use the lanes anyway. But worse, sometimes the process allowed someone on a watch list to pass through the line with less scrutiny.

Who's to blame here? First, blame Congress for claiming that anti-terrorism measures are a priority yet not funding the TSA with the full measure of funds it requires to back up all that partisan campaign-trail talk.

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Second, blame the TSA—but gently, since its biggest sins were in its opening strategy. It shouldn't have cut staff before the PreCheck signups were established—but we understand that when your bosses on Capitol Hill are looking over your budget, they put a lot of pressure on you.

The TSA also screwed up the launch of PreCheck by giving it at first to passengers in first class and business class. They probably figured that they were most likely to be frequent fliers who would most enjoy the new system. That strategy is over, but too late. It ruined the image of PreCheck from the get-go, making the program seem like a classist perk—pay more, get faster security. Now millions of Americans perceive PreCheck as something for the rich, which is not what it was intended to be and, in fact, isn't. The $85 you pay (for five years' validity) goes to your background check—to enable the government to do its research on you now instead of later—and your membership card.

The TSA also messed up PreCheck by making the application process so laborious. Some cities have offices that conduct interviews, but they're usually booked far in advance, forcing passengers to schlep to an airport just to introduce themselves to government agents. The obstacles end there—once you're in, it's smooth sailing for five years—but the bureaucratic entry system has been a deterrent to signing up. If the city offices were more common and better staffed and people didn't have to make trips to airports just to sign up, they would be more likely to give PreCheck application a try.

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But passengers are also to blame. We just haven't taken the time to understand PreCheck or put up with its early obstacles. It's true that a certain number of people were never going to sign up, put off by both the fee and privacy concerns, and that each month, as many as 300,000 people do sign up. Nonetheless,  membership should be higher. TSA PreCheck should have far more passengers than it does.

Even the staff here at Frommer's is split on membership. I am a member (I paid another $15 to get Global Entry, which also speeds my border re-entry through U.S. Customs), and I'm usually finished with domestic U.S, security checkpoints in fewer than five minutes. Pauline Frommer, on the other hand, is not a member, and she reports she doesn't usually have a hard time with long lines. She's not in a big hurry to sign up.

The first solution is to convince Congress to fund the TSA properly so it can adequately staff the main queue. Congress, back in session this week, has Brussels on its mind and may now be inclined to doing just that. Meanwhile, a bill, H.R. 2843, aims to give more power to the private sector to facilitate easier membership into PreCheck; that has been kicking around Capitol Hill since last year.

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The second solution, in the meantime, is to put up with a little pain and apply for PreCheck (here's how to do that). The government responded to complaints by giving Americans a faster option for easing the misery of airport security inspections—one that costs the equivalent of a few checked bags—but for reasons of our own, some of us refuse to even consider it.

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