TSA blaming airlines for limited PreCheck success

The TSA‘s PreCheck program is the latest version of a panacea the agency has to solve the problems of their horrible inefficiency and misguided efforts at the screening checkpoint. And when it works the program actually is quite useful, saving a lot of time for passengers who are selected. But not enough customers are getting the necessary 3 beeps at the checkpoint, allowing them through the quicker screening method. One estimate has approximately 1 million passengers monthly using the new system by 2013, roughly 2% of the volume passing through checkpoints in the USA. The TSA wants the number to be between 50-75% and they’re blaming the airlines for not pushing more customers through.

The TSA might almost be turning a corner on policy. Administrator John Pistole acknowledges that most of the screening performed today is excessive:

The goal is to expand PreCheck as broadly as possible. The vast majority of travelers simply want to get from point A to point B safely. They’re not terrorists.

Of course, getting approved for PreCheck means telling the TSA a little about yourself. And it means flying through an airport where the service is available. The Agency is working to make it available at more locations – currently up to 27 airports today and should be in 35 by the end of the year – so that part is being handled somewhat. It seems the telling the TSA about yourself part is where things are breaking down. Currently the only way to get yourself checked is via a participating airline. The TSA actually isn’t doing the checking directly. From a Bloomberg article on the process:

TSA sets the classified criteria, and transmits them to participating airlines. Airlines match the qualifications, which include the number of miles flown, number of segments flown and number of destinations, against their frequent-flier lists. Airlines ask customers who qualify if they want to opt into PreCheck. Those who do are forwarded to TSA for final approval.

And the TSA is saying that airlines won’t share their data or include enough candidates to allow more to be expedited through the screening process. At the same time, the TSA acknowledges that they don’t have the systems in place, nor the ability to aggregate the information while maintaining appropriate levels of customer privacy vis a vis the different airlines involved. Douglas Hofsass, the TSA’s assistant administrator for the office of risk-based security, sums up the challenges:

Technically, we don’t have the ability right now, based on the way the eligibility requirements are transmitted to the individual carrier, the way those individuals opt in and the way those records come into us, to validate those individuals. We don’t have the ability to cascade that to other carriers when those individuals make reservations.

The TSA wants the information but doesn’t have the ability to appropriately handle or process it. And, according to Pistole, the TSA may also lack the authority to collect the information they need to analyze to make such systems work. It is a mess and it is almost as if the system was engineered to be such from the get-go.

At an IATA conference being held this week Tony Tyler, CEO of the group, notes that the current approach to security – building out more and more space to handle the ever increasing queues – is simply untenable. And that’s after millions upon millions of dollars have been spent just to get to this point.

Perhaps the most distressing part is that some big names in the industry are starting to praise the TSA’s recent changes. Air Canada‘s former CEO Montie Brewer, spoke highly of the organization while at the IATA conference .

I applaud the TSA. I never thought I would say it because they are the worst part of travel.

Apparently if you set the bar low enough then even tiny bits of progress can be incredible. A shame, really, but that’s the way things seem to work at the TSA.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Is it possible that the airlines are deliberately keeping the number of PreCheck-qualified passengers low so that PreCheck can essentially be a government-funded exclusive benefit for elite-level frequent flyers?

  2. My first experience with TSA Pre-Check at ORD Terminal 1 (UA) over the last weekend was TERRIFIC. I got the 3 beeps after I scanned my electronic boarding pass via iOS Passbook (worked flawlessly) and zipped through security in less than 2 minutes with shoes on, coat on and liquids in my bag. The TSA agents were even extremely polite, reminded me of what I didn’t have to do any more and told me they were there to help get me through security quickly. WOW. I’m scoring TSA 10 out of 10. It is hard to believe I just said that.

  3. Here’s an amusing situation. My wife recently got Global Entry but I don’t have it. Prior to getting Global Entry, we both routinely got 3-beeps for Pre-Check. Since I added her Global Entry number into her profile Pre-Check stopped working for her. We haven’t gotten a clear understanding but it appears to have something to do with her middle name. In any event it seems strange that another branch of DHS considers her more trusted, and giving that information to TSA makes her less trusted than she was before. I guess I should remove the GE number from her airline profile.

  4. Here is what bothers me. I am a permanent resident of the US and have a Global Entry permit. All my information is available in my Delta profile and I registered for the TSA PreCheck. It worked for a while and I was always eligible until last week when I tried to board on the TSA PreCheck and the officer told me I was not eligible for that. Two days later on the flight back I was eligible for TSA PreCheck. Thus in my opinion the system works at random since not always you are selected for that benefit.

  5. Any idea when PreCheck is going to go live at EWR for United?

    I’ve been seeing this for a LONG time now:

    “(EWR) Newark Liberty International Airport
    Coming Soon
    United Airlines Location
    C3 Checkpoint”

    I only just got approved for Global Entry, so I really hope they start it before my trip in December.

  6. It is live at EWR in Terminal C. Go to the C3 checkpoint and it is all the way on the left side as you’re facing the checkpoint, as far from C2 as you can get.

  7. My personal experience has been that my PreCheck selections for security have dramatically increases upon getting Global Entry and entering my Trusted Traveler number in my frequent flyer airline profiles.

    For those that are having trouble getting selected, I’ve heard that if your name varies between documents (boarding pass, ID, Trusted Traveler #, etc.) chances of getting selected are lower. Not sure if this is true or not, but I made sure the name on file with United and American matched my driver’s license, passport, and global entry name.

  8. I agree that the TSA blaming the airlines is unjustified, mainly due to the existence of Global Entry, Sentri and Nexus. I contend that the qualification for Pre-check should be disconnected from the airlines, instead this process should be standalone and available to everyone with GE (or equivalent) adjudication.

    The randomness could then be based on number of passengers moving through the lines instead of status with an airline. In addition, it could require a biometrics check to link the person to their card. Disney World can do fingerprints quickly, as can banks.

    This way more people can be served through security, it will make the process more useful for time assumptions, and be available to all Americans who want to use the system. The effort put into the front end (getting to an interview, the paperwork, the fees) mitigate future effort on travel day. Those Americans who don’t want to invest these resources can go through the cattle drive : )

  9. I think your blog captures my frustration with the Pre-Check system. I even wrote about it last week: great idea, but not enough roll-out. I understand where TSA would be frustrated at the airlines for not rolling more passengers through, but for this to be a worthwhile project, they need to start making this available at more airports in the United States. What’s the use of trying to get into Pre-Check if it only aligns with my travel plans once or twice a year?

  10. Thank you Seth! I would have missed out on this.

    Now I’m a total newbie at this so please excuse the next question… But what are the 3 beeps that you are referring to?

  11. @Santastico, PreCheck is supposed to be random by design; even if one qualifies for PreCheck, there is always the chance that one will not get the coveted three beeps (or the big green light which is used at LAX).

    @Chris B., PreCheck is already available to people with Global Entry/Nexus, etc. Are you saying that it should *only* be available to people who qualify for one of the Trusted Traveler programs?

  12. I use it and love it. At PHX, you go into a separate line with literally no one in it (never seen anyone in it anyway), *so* fast through security. I don’t recall getting any beeps tho…

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