Why You Might Get to Go Through the PreCheck Lane This Thanksgiving

While going through the airport for that Thanksgiving flight, you might find yourself directed toward the expedited-security lane—even if you haven't enrolled in a Trusted Traveler program or signed up for PreCheck. Call it an early Christmas gift from your friends at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Quietly, the TSA has begun to randomly offer PreCheck to select travelers on a per-flight basis. Last month, the New York Times reported that the TSA has increased its efforts to prescreen passengers before they even arrive at the airport. The TSA is combing private and government databases, which may include anything from property records to frequent-flyer accounts, to evaluate individuals in advance. According to the Times, a spokesperson from the TSA said that the agency's goal is "to identify low-risk travelers for lighter screening at airport security checkpoints, adapting methods similar to those used to flag suspicious people entering the United States."

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Lighter screening means access to a PreCheck security line, which moves a lot faster than the standard one. In a PreCheck line, passengers can keep shoes and outerwear on, and they don't have to remove their laptops or quart-size bags of liquids from their luggage. According to a representative from the TSA, "The time it takes to go through a TSA PreCheck line is considerably less than a standard lane."

Before the TSA expended its approach to screening passengers, there were two ways to gain access to the PreCheck lane. One could pay to enroll in a Trusted Traveler program like Global Entry or NEXUS, which can cost as much as $100. Or a traveler (typically a frequent flyer) might receive a personal invite from an airline to participate in PreCheck. That was it. At some point in the future, the TSA says it will sell PreCheck to the general public for an $85 application fee. (A spokesperson told us that the program would launch later this fall.) To be eligible, you'll have to go to an enrollment sight, submit fingerprints, and go through an extensive background check.  

Or you can take the easier route: Do nothing. You can show up at the airport and bank on getting lucky—no fee or fingerprints necessary. The TSA won't tell us exactly how probable it is that a traveler who is not enrolled in PreCheck or Trusted Traveler will get invited to go through the faster security lane. Anecdotally, it happens fairly often. I know of many people who have received a PreCheck screening on the fly.

If there's a decent chance you'll get to take advantage of PreCheck without having to bother with Trusted Traveler and such, what, then, is the point of applying for PreCheck enrollment? We asked a TSA representative that very question, and he told us that "No travelers are guaranteed [access to expedited security]. Individuals and travelers enrolled in a Trusted Traveler program will receive TSA PreCheck on a more consistent basis when flying on a participating airline."

The TSA representative also ensured us that the increasing volume of travelers heading into the expedited security lane won't slow things down. He said the TSA is "opening additional lanes at additional airports. …The goal is to have multiple PreCheck lanes, and we'll meet the additional capacity by adding additional lanes."

The TSA says it hopes to offer PreCheck lanes at more than 100 airports by the end of the year. A greater number of carriers is pairing with the program, too. This week, JetBlue became the ninth airline to participate in PreCheck. You can expect more PreCheck opportunities for all travelers in the coming year—but whether or not enrollment is still worth the price and the privacy trade-off is up for debate.

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