Armed with data showing that an additional 7 million people would enroll in the TSA PreCheck program if the price were reduced and the application process simplified, another travel group last week called on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to reduce its enrollment fee.

A study by the U.S. Travel Association revealed that 50% of domestic air travelers in the U.S. who have flown at least once in the last year and are unlikely to join PreCheck cited its $85 enrollment fee as being too high. Of those respondents, 21% indicated they would be more likely to join if the price was reduced to $60.

Moreover, about 20% of those who are unlikely to join said that the two-step, online and in-person application process was too cumbersome. And more than half of those respondents said they would be more likely to enroll if the application could be done entirely online or on mobile devices.

The survey was published after Christopher Bidwell, Airports Council International-North America’s vice president for security, recommended that TSA consider reducing its PreCheck application fee, or even making it free, to increase enrollment.

But Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and TSA officials say that enrollment in trusted-traveler programs, such as CBP’s Global Entry which includes PreCheck membership, is higher than it’s ever been, perhaps owing to the recent flood of media attention about long airport security lines.

And the U.S. Travel study, conducted with market research firm TNS, also found that just over 20% of respondents not currently enrolled in PreCheck are likely to enroll without any changes in price or procedure.

In May 277,047 people enrolled in PreCheck, more than triple the 91,415 enrollments in May 2015.

“The long lines certainly got everyone’s attention,” said David Lim, a TSA executive adviser. “It’s a good problem to have.”

In fact, if application wait times are an indication that enrollment is up, some Global Entry centers are finding themselves overwhelmed.

Elaine Schoch, a travel writer based in Colorado, applied for Global Entry on April 29 and was given an October time slot to conduct the in-person interview at Denver's airport.

“I’m not surprised more people haven’t signed up for it,” Schoch said.

In response, John Wagner, the CBP deputy assistant commissioner in the office of field operations, said that CBP had recently “seen a spike” in Global Entry applications; last month they surged to about 10,000 per day from an average of 5,000 to 7,000. In locations such as Denver Airport, he said, “we may just not have the availability to do that many Global Entry appointments.”

“We look to do as many as we can,” he said. “But in places where we have smaller staff but huge de-mand, we do see some backlog from time to time. In larger locations, where we have larger pools to draw from, it’s easier for us to manage.”

‘It’s 100% worth it’

Travel agents, by and large, say their clients have not balked at the cost of the program, but they also said they tend to work with more frequent and savvy travelers. 

“When you break down the price of $100 for five years, it’s 100% worth it, and they know it,” Erina Pindar, managing director of SmartFlyer, said of Global Entry.

One area where price seems to make a difference, however, is when it comes to enrolling children in Global Entry. Children under 12 can use PreCheck lanes if they are traveling with parents or guardians who are enrolled in the program. However, with Global Entry, every traveler, including a child, has to be a member to use it, and there is no discount for children or families. It’s $100 per person, no matter the age.

Julie Donnelly, a Massachusetts-based senior writer for Amendola Communications, found that for a family like hers, which travels internationally once per year, having to pay the $100 Global Entry fee for her two sons, ages 3 and 1, as well as for her and her husband, did not make much financial sense. Especially since there would be no real time saved in the first year of her membership.

“For a family that takes one international trip per year, I am basically trading an hour at the airport on the trip for an hour doing the interview, at an inconvenient place,” she said.

In addition, she and her family are traveling to Barcelona on TAP Portugal airlines, which is not a Pre-Check member, meaning she will not be able to take advantage of PreCheck membership on that trip.

“The patchwork of services between the two programs and the failure to include most foreign airlines in the PreCheck program makes it hard to calculate the value,” she said.

“For families, it’s just a matter of how often they travel,” said Carole Williams, the CEO of Travel 15 in New Jersey. She said that 80% of her leisure customers and almost all her business clients have it.

“If they travel as a family more than two or three times a year, it is worth it, especially overseas,” Williams said.

Lim said that the TSA is aware of calls for price elasticity when it comes to PreCheck but that unlike the private sector, it is very difficult for a government agency like the TSA to change the fee without going through a series of government approvals that would take a long time.

Instead, he said, the TSA hopes that its request for proposal (RFP) from private sector companies to help market and enroll travelers in PreCheck, which will be awarded later this year, will result in enrollment solutions and increased marketing efforts. That, in turn, could result in lowering application fees and streamlining the process.

“What we’re looking for is for the private sector to come in with innovative solutions for application enrollment,” Lim said. “We expect the private sector to engage in things that we as government cannot.”

For example, he said, the TSA currently takes fingerprints at its interviews.

“There is probably technology available today to send the fingerprint from your mobile device or to do an iris scan,” he said.

“There are all sorts of ways to verify citizenship, so we hope the private sector company finds a more frictionless application process through innovative solutions by employing new technologies.”

If one of those companies heeds U.S. Travel’s advice and enables the application to be done online, enrollment costs would naturally drop since there would be no need for the brick-and-mortar locations and on-site staff to conduct interviews. 

Lim stressed that while the private sector companies that win the RFP will be engaged in the front end of the enrollment process, the TSA will still conduct the threat assessments.

“The private companies will collect the information and give it to us in a secure manner,” he said. “The TSA will ultimately vet and decide who’s eligible, regardless of who is handling the front end.”

U.S. Travel said the results of its study indicate that the Department of Homeland Security’s goal of enrolling 25 million air travelers in all of its trusted traveler programs (PreCheck and Global Entry) by 2019 is “plausible with some modifications to TSA PreCheck.”

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