TSA to market PreCheck, limit role of airlines

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Passengers wait in the standard security line while a TSA PreCheck line stands empty.
Passengers wait in the standard security line while a TSA PreCheck line stands empty. Photo Credit: TSA

Aiming to increase the number of travelers authorized to use expedited TSA PreCheck lanes at airports from the current 4.6 million to 25 million, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is targeting the 36 million U.S. travelers who take three or more airline trips per year with a marketing initiative to enhance the PreCheck brand.

At the same time, the agency, a division of Homeland Security, said last month it will be scaling back on an airline-based program under which carriers have been allowed to qualify some members of their frequent flyer programs for PreCheck. Over time, airline-qualified travelers will find that they are approved for the expedited PreCheck security lanes less and less frequently, according to a TSA blog post in late March.

However, travelers who have “known-traveler numbers” through Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Global Entry, Nexus or Sentri programs or as a result of TSA’s own PreCheck authorization process will continue to get expedited screening with the same frequency as in the past.

Participating airlines are encouraging their frequent travelers to sign up for the TSA and CBP programs.

The airline-qualification program dates back to the introduction of TSA PreCheck in 2011. To introduce travelers to the program, airlines were allowed to invite their frequent flyer members who met certain security criteria to opt in to a limited TSA PreCheck program.

If travelers opted in, airlines would flag their tickets for the TSA, which would consider them for PreCheck and often give them expedited clearance.

But the agency imposed limitations. Airline-qualified travelers could get PreCheck only when flying with the carrier that had qualified them. And the TSA cleared those travelers for PreCheck lanes less frequently than it cleared travelers with known-traveler numbers.

TSA Press Secretary Ross Feinstein said the agency has warned all along that it would ratchet back on some initiatives as the number of travelers with known-traveler numbers climbs.

Efficiency a la E-ZPass

Still, he said, the more travelers who qualify for PreCheck, the more efficient security lines will become.

The TSA, he said, envisions a future in which many travelers speed through TSA PreCheck, just as E-ZPass and other electronic toll collection services have resulted in more drivers using the electronic lanes than the less-efficient manned lanes. 

The idea is to free up TSA resources to enable agents to focus on the small minority of travelers who actually might pose a security threat.

“The vast majority of travelers pose no threat to aviation security,” Feinstein said.

The Global Entry, Nexus and Sentri programs, as well as TSA’s own PreCheck initiative, are all based on vetting flyers in advance to determine the levels of risk they might pose.

Once the TSA knows about these travelers, its agents don’t have to spend as much time checking them when they pass through security, enabling agents to focus on travelers less known to them.

In recent congressional testimony, Ken Fletcher, the TSA’s chief risk officer, said these initiatives have saved the TSA $319 million in the past two years. Much of the savings came from workforce and workforce-support costs.

Ken Fletcher
Ken Fletcher

The TSA has hired a professional marketing firm to help it with brand positioning, Fletcher said. Sage Communications, a public relations, marketing, social media and digital communications firm based in McLean, Va., last week identified the TSA as a client, but principals could not be reached to verify that Sage is handling the PreCheck initiative.

The TSA, which until now has been publicizing the program primarily through word-of-mouth and public relations efforts, is also working to make enrollment in its own PreCheck program easier.

It now has 326 application centers nationwide, located in airports or in IdentoGo locations operated by MorphoTrust, an identity-services company. To enroll in CBP’s Global Entry and Sentri programs, applicants apply online, then schedule interviews at CBP offices at airports or other locations. Nexus applicants apply online.

In addition to qualifying travelers for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, which costs $100 for five years, expedites customs screening for flyers arriving in a U.S. airport on an international flight.

Nexus, which expedites customs processing between the U.S. and Canada, costs $50 for five years.

Sentri expedites customs processing at land borders and is mainly aimed at vehicles. But it also includes Global Entry and TSA PreCheck benefits. It costs $125 for five years.

Members of the armed forces also qualify for TSA PreCheck because their military ID numbers count as known-traveler numbers.

Another of the TSA’s promotional tools is its “managed inclusion” program, which is primarily designed to keep traffic moving through security lanes. Under managed inclusion, if the PreCheck lane is empty and travelers are waiting in the standard lane, TSA agents may direct unqualified travelers to the PreCheck lane.

“We can’t have a PreCheck lane that screens four travelers an hour,” Feinstein said.

Managed inclusion is also a way to introduce travelers to TSA PreCheck. This is a double-edged sword, however, since it sometimes irks travelers who have paid for their known-traveler status. And some lawmakers have expressed concern that the TSA’s real-time threat assessment might not be effective.

The TSA uses dogs, explosives-trace technology and behavior-detection agents to vet the traveler it redirects through underused PreCheck lanes. But a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that a convicted felon who was also a former member of a domestic terrorism organization was permitted to pass through a PreCheck lane, a breach of security that Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) called “simply inexcusable.”

The TSA began testing new procedures for qualifying travelers for the manual-inclusion program in February and will continue testing through 2016.

Despite breaches, public and private support of TSA PreCheck and known-traveler programs is high.

The TSA is also partnering with the private sector to encourage PreCheck applications. Some examples include Loews Hotels & Resorts, which has subsidized membership in the Global Entry program for its elite members, and American Express, which subsidizes elite cardholders who want either Global Entry or PreCheck.

Sabre promoted the TSA PreCheck enrollment program in GDS ads last year.

The U.S. Travel Association’s vice president of government relations, Patricia Rojas-Ungar, said that association members have enrolled in TSA PreCheck and have been encouraging their customers to enroll, as well.

She said it was important for the TSA to develop a marketing campaign to identify the PreCheck target market, adding that one proposal was to have PreCheck enrollment centers at airports where travelers can enroll immediately after they’ve gone through security.

One problem with that plan, however, is that applicants need two forms of identification; most people travel with just one.

Currently, TSA PreCheck lanes are available at 120 airports, with 11 carriers participating. Passengers or their travel agents enter the traveler’s known-traveler number into the travel record. The TSA vets it and then grants expedited clearance. TSA is careful to note that it can institute additional screening for any passenger or any lane at any time.

The PreCheck program and lanes are funded by the tax dollars, though the fees travelers pay to join known-traveler programs cover the cost of background checks.

PreCheck is different from the priority lines that airlines sometimes provide for their elite travelers. Priority lines are staffed by airline personnel, and elite travelers go through the standard security check, though they wait in a shorter line.

The TSA also determines where PreCheck lanes are located. That decision is often based on available space, which is why, Feinstein said, some terminals don’t have a PreCheck lane.

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