The Transportation Security Administration last week announced plans to vastly expand a new passenger screening program that speeds up check-in at airports. It's the TSA's first major move toward a security plan that gives a break to passengers that are considered less of a threat.
The program is already in the test phase at seven airports, and will be expanded to 35, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, by the end of the year. Travelers chosen for the expedited screening get to keep their shoes on, as well as leave liquids and laptops in their bags.
The catch? It's only available to select frequent fliers, or those who qualify for special screening plans, which cost up to $100.
Here's an overview of the screening programs, who's allowed in and how to enroll:
The fast lane
The first thing you need to know is that every airline isn't eligible -- at least not right away.
Right now, only high-level frequent fliers at Delta and American Airlines can be invited to join the program. The TSA won't say what level status a frequent flier must have in order to be eligible, citing security concerns. The airlines are inviting qualified fliers directly -- but if you only fly for holidays or the occasional vacation, don't wait by your inbox.
Fliers with top-tier status on US Airways, United and Alaska are also getting invites. But the option for those fliers won't start until later this year.
There's a backdoor way to get on the list of chosen ones. Members of Customs and Border Protection's Trusted Traveler programs Global Entry, Sentri and Nexus who are U.S. citizens are eligible to apply at www.globalentry.gov. The downside is, they're not free. Prices range from $42 to $100 for a five-year membership. While they're intended for frequent international travelers, they provide the same ability to speed through security anywhere you fly.
How it works
There will be a criminal background check run, for sure, and possibly a requirement to provide extra personal information. When a qualified passenger accepts an invitation -- or pays for special screening -- the membership becomes part of their frequent flier profile. TSA agents will know this upon scanning the bar code on these passengers' boarding pass. They then shuttle those passengers to an expedited screening line.
Belts and shoes stay on, laptops and liquids remain in bags and everything moves faster. But even these passengers can be subjected to scanners and pat-downs. The TSA reserves the right to give extra screening to anyone.
Where and when
The program is currently available for American Airlines customers in Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. For Delta fliers, the speedy screening is available at airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis. If you're a Delta frequent flier taking a flight on American Airlines, or vice versa, it's only available where the two overlap: Las Vegas and Minneapolis.
New York's John F. Kennedy and San Francisco International Airports will be added by the end of this month. Salt Lake City International Airport, Washington Reagan and Chicago O'Hare will join by the end of March. By the end of the year, 35 airports will offer special pre-check security lines for those travelers lucky enough to get in.
"TSA wants to reduce the size of the haystack and focus more on passengers that we know less about or on those we know more about because they're on a watch list," spokesman Greg Soule said.
TSA wants to eventually get pre-check at every airport, but that will probably take years. About 336,000 passengers have been screened through the program since the testing began last year, according to the TSA. That's less than one in a hundred fliers.
If you're hoping these new speedy security lines will reduce the wait for everyone, don't hold your breath. Despite the expansion, members in the new program will only make up a small sliver of daily passengers. So it's still important to get to the airport well ahead of your flight, put your liquids in three-ounce containers and -- you guessed it -- wear slip-on shoes to take off at the metal detector.
What the experts say
"From my perspective, this is nothing but good," said aviation consultant Russell McCaffery, a former TSA executive. He said it solves the traveling public's main gripe about the TSA: subjecting every traveler to the highest level of scrutiny, regardless of their risk.
The program can make the traveling public happier while not risking security, McCaffery said, because it's removing the parts of screening considered the least vital. A laptop in its case, toothpaste in your suitcase or shoe on your foot is still being screened.
Ken Button, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, agrees that the pre-check program is an effective way of removing the lowest risk traveler from the more onerous parts of the security process. Because the program only accepts U.S. citizens, Button noted, it's also a politically correct way of profiling.
"Terrorists aren't frequent fliers," he said.
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