July 06--As much as Americans seem to love getting on planes and going places, they seem to hate the vagaries of airline travel.
That is, anything that gets in the way of their getting from here to there as quickly as possible is for lack of a better word, bad. And that includes the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
The much-maligned federal agency tasked with assuring travelers' safe departure from, and arrival at U.S. airports in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy has steadily moved up most airline passengers' "least liked" lists over the last several years. But TSA may have just found a way to begin moving back down that list, or at least halting its ascent.
And deservedly so.
The agency has been steadily adding checkpoints at U.S. airports for the much-ballyhooed TSA Pre-Check program, a credentialing that allows passengers a quick and easy route through security -- currently 118 airports across the country. That includes Palm Beach International Airport and eight others in Florida.
PBIA's application center for the expedited-security program opened last week with 11 of the airport's 13 carriers airlines participating. According to TSA spokesmen, not only can passengers keep their shoes on and laptops packed, but get to live life in the fast lane -- literally.
"Passengers love it," said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz, during PBIA's unveiling of its long-awaited application center. A TSA Pre-Check office has been open at the Port of Palm Beach since early February, but many local travelers were still driving all the way down to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for the 15-minute sign-up.
Nationally, these openings are accelerating though after a slow start. The agency had been pushing hard to get 25 percent of travelers using Pre-Check by the end of 2013, but created some confusion as TSA began randomly assigning travelers to the fast-pass lanes who had not previously been designated as PreCheck-certified by participating airlines or through other existing methods.
Agency officials this year have focused more on the formal application process. Travelers now report to application centers like PBIA's, pay $85, get fingerprinted, and hope to be approved for five years -- as long as they don't among other things, have a criminal history or invalid immigration status. Today, more than 350,000 people have been pre-screened nationally, up from about 275,000 enrolled in early June.
TSA officials are quick to say that just because someone has paid to go through the pre-screening process is no guarantee that they will fly through the security checkpoint every time, only that it should happen "on a more consistent basis."
Although that sounds inconvenient, it's probably a good thing. There are still safety and security issues at U.S. airports. Travelers still seem to wrestle with what is and is not allowed on planes. And last week, the Obama administration was forced to order the TSA to take "enhanced security measures" for passengers flying to the U.S. from some airports in the Middle East and Europe after intelligence showed that a terrorist group in Yemen has developed a new method for smuggling a bomb onto a jetliner.
Still, patience is not a virtue of the American air traveler. And they have become even less patient as the cost of airline tickets has gone up, while the number of available flights on certain routes has gone down.
TSA officials estimate that passengers in a Pre-Check lane will wait an average of five minutes, about half as long as passengers going through the standard security lane.
As long as TSA can avoid further turbulence in the new program, persnickety airline travelers should take it.
Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.