TSA Pre Check - Is It Working?

Yes and No.

TSA’s trusted traveler “Pre-check” program has gained a lot of media attention lately, both good and bad.  We’ve seen a continuing barrage of media items about “X-number of additional airports implementing Pre-check”, although interestingly enough, I can’t find an accurate number, even on the TSA web site – it lists 20, but talks about 28 “this year”.   Most of the articles have the same verbiage, but that’s to be expected – TSA makes it known through orchestrated press releases that provide information on how to join the shorter and fully clothed parade.

I believe it’s a good idea, but public acceptance and airport implementation has proven to be a bit problematic.  Administrator Pistole and other TSA officials continue to hype their goal which is by some accounts as high as 65-70% enrollment of the total traveling public, not those flying on any given day.  Personally, I think that’s wishful thinking, even for a good program, but I have no objection to reaching for high goals... as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences of not reaching them.

Part of the problem is just typical chicken-and-egg start-up difficulties:  not enough users enrolled yet to justify more airports – thus the continued heavy PR efforts - and not enough airports with dedicated lanes to make it worthwhile for many of us.  Further, many smaller airports with only a few lanes don’t (and won’t ever) have enough room to make that space commitment.  My colleague in Orlando notes that the airport serving Disney World currently averages about 700 travelers a day using Pre-check out of 50,000+ travelers - barely 1% of their daily travelers.  Five airlines currently participate in the program at MCO, not including one of the busiest ones, Southwest. A similar condition afflicts the commercial membership version, the CLEAR program, which was purchased out of bankruptcy by new investors about a year ago.  I don’t know the size of their current member base, but their web site shows operation at only four airports.  If you don’t fly to/from one of those, membership has no value.  So, yes, Pre-check works: for very few people so far at about 4% of all US airports.

Does that mean I have to join every frequent flyer program to reach several smaller markets, and would that in any way influence my choice of (and cost of) flights just for that one brief benefit, which incidentally (a) is unlikely to be available at the other end of my flight, and (b) can be abrogated at any time by TSA’s "random selection".  Clearance through one airline frequent flyer program is not valid for another carrier, and each carries very different data, often in different formats.  One example: I belong to programs for both Saudia and Qatar Airlines for the work our company does in the Middle East. I don’t know if they are even eligible for Pre-check participation, but I bet that my originating on Delta, United, US Air, or Alaska and connecting on flights to Dubai, Jeddah and Riyadh gives me a very different risk profile than yours.

Finally, recent media attention has been drawn to what is deemed a significant security risk with boarding passes, which carry a code telling the TSA document checker which line you belong in, including Pre-check.  It’s based on the issuing carrier’s profile of you, and a comparison against the no-fly list, but it’s not as secure as CBP’s Global Entry, which includes a background check and a biometric.  Worse, it’s not encrypted, so the bar code and other data can be easily read and modified with a home computer and printer, allowing an AQAP team to put themselves into the easier Pre-check screening line.  As noted in a recent Washington Post series, cyber-security no longer requires cyber expertise. The software is available on your smart phone.

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