Imagine breezing through the TSA airport-security line with your shoes, jacket, and jewelry still on, and your laptop stowed safely in your carry-on. How much is it worth to skip the mildly degrading barefoot shuffle through the airport body scanner and clock an extra 20 minutes of sleep on a travel day? According to a recent Harris Poll, $50 is the average amount American fliers would be willing to shell out to be part of an expedited screening program like TSA's PreCheck—$35 less than the current $85 price tag.
As someone who's in an airport more weeks than not, $85 seems a small price to pay. But my PreCheck status was originally accidental and, at times, has been conditional. Like many passengers, I was ushered into a separate line one day at LAX. (The TSA determines eligibility for the program on a flight-by-flight basis for those who aren't official paying members.)
While this move sounds like a step in the right direction on the TSA's part—and don't get me wrong, it really is—there are some obvious flaws in the system. First, if this program is truly going to take off and be effective in reducing airport frustration and security-line bottlenecks, it needs broader awareness to drive acceptance. So far, the program has been plagued by low enrollment, likely due in part to confusing rules and restrictions. While I'm generally waved through to the PreCheck line on cross-country flights, shorter routes like Chicago to New York find me back in the general security line, with no explanation as to why.
The TSA needs to make a more aggressive effort to get the message across to the right people. It also needs to make the PreCheck application process more convenient. When a person signs up for an airline's frequen-flyer program, perhaps he should have the option to click over to a government page to easily verify important background information right then and there. Another solution: The TSA could work with government agencies like the DMV or the U.S. Department of State to ensure that when a driver's license or passport is renewed, TSA PreCheck is available for an extra opt-in fee. By providing more access points, enrollment could go up among travelers who lack the time to visit the application centers, which are still limited in both locations and hours.
Furthermore, the TSA needs to be clearer about its eligibility guidelines. The agency makes the program available to a fairly high volume of potentially eligible people, so the next step is not only ensuring that the application process is sufficiently stringent, but also transparent. Americans need to better understand the protocols in place, from proof of citizenship and valid ID to fingerprints.
Americans are wary of the effectiveness of TSA screenings in general. Only half of Americans polled believe that TSA security screenings make air travel safer, and about two-thirds have concerns that lessening security procedures for some passengers through the PreCheck program will result in missing potential threats. Yet the fingerprint scan and other requirements that are supposed to be mandatory for eligibility, and are desired by most people, are often not met, as the TSA sometimes waves non-approved travelers through to the PreCheck line.
Sure, if the prerequisites are more lax, more people will enter the program. But a fine balance must be struck for PrecCheck to ultimately speed the security process for frequent travelers while also helping to reduce the wait times of passengers in general security lines. If too many members are part of TSA's PreCheck, it defeats the purpose. Think of a carpool lane; there are limiting laws around driving in those lanes in order to keep the volume at a level that remains effective in freeing up traffic across the board.
I applaud TSA's PreCheck; it's a big step in the right direction for more efficient air travel among the almost two million people per day who are screened by the TSA. From personal experience, it does make getting through the airport considerably easier. However, it's not quite "there" yet. The program needs broader exposure to get off the ground, while simultaneously ensuring that the streamlined process doesn’t compromise security for any passenger.
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