MJ on Travel linked to a USA Today article last week discussing plans by the Transportation Security Administration to use private companies to enroll more members in PreCheck. Apparently only 600,000 have signed up to pay $85 for five years of PreCheck access, while there are 2.5 million have paid $100 for five years of Global Entry (which includes PreCheck). Scott McCartney of The Wall Street Journal raised the topic again this morning, saying, “[t]he Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program is desperate for customers after three years of operation.” As the government seeks to grow the program they seem to have decided that convenience is the main reason those numbers aren’t higher.
I think there are some other explanations, and those reasons might suggest that it would be unwise to greatly increase the scope of the program.
There Aren’t Any More People Who Want to Use PreCheck
It’s no surprise that Global Entry has more people. The most frequent travelers who would benefit from PreCheck were also likely to be among those with a U.S. Passport and who already jumped on the Global Entry opportunity before a separate PreCheck-only enrollment became available. That eager customer base is now closer to exhaustion. What you have left are (1) infrequent travelers who don’t need or understand it, (2) price-sensitive travelers who don’t have or think it’s worth the money, and (3) indifferent travelers who clearly don’t see the value as great enough to be worth the hassle of enrollment.
But PreCheck still works best when you have the money and the demand to justify opening more locations. That means getting more people to use it.
The government responded to a lack of demand by letting random passengers into the PreCheck line, assigning them access at check-in or when they enter the line. When I talk to some of these passengers as we wait in line — because there are now enough people that (long) lines actually form — their reactions are either confusion because they don’t know what PreCheck is or ambivalence about the whole process. These people aren’t impressed enough to enroll and get PreCheck on future trips. In many cases they try to follow the standard security procedures, slowing down the line and gaining no benefit. There have been times when my wife, with no PreCheck, manages to clear security before me. (I know it’s embarrassing, but she hasn’t updated her passport and Global Entry so her trusted traveler number stopped working.)
McCartney quotes TSA Administrator John Pistole as saying, “I’ve got to have people in those lanes. Otherwise, officers just stand there and fuel the perceptions.” I assume he’s referring to the other definition of TSA: Thousands Standing Around. But the problem is that too many people are being let in without being familiar with the program. It’s not the employees standing around — it’s the passengers who paid for the upgraded service.
An Exclusive Service Isn’t Exclusive When Anyone Can Get In
We need more people using it to make it self-sufficient. And letting random people into PreCheck doesn’t seem to be working, either. So why am I against increasing the number of enrollment centers for legitimate, long-term PreCheck registration?
The “average” traveler can mean two things: the few of us who travel most frequently or the many who travel infrequently. Either is a large group as a proportion as total seat miles flown and security checkpoints cleared. That’s why priority security lanes for frequent travelers with elite status make sense. These people aren’t “better” than infrequent travelers, but the 10-15 minutes they save each time add up to a lot over the course of a year. It’s my opinion that helping the masses of infrequent travelers save time with PreCheck will have a less significant impact.
I’m also concerned that even if we give them a chance, infrequent travelers may not learn the new routine. Half of the passengers waiting in front of me in PreCheck lines still take out/take off their laptops, liquids, jackets, belts, and shoes despite an employee standing there and telling them not to. When PreCheck works right, the people using it know what they’re supposed to do and PreCheck largely runs itself.
One Possible Solution to Faster Security Checks
What we ought to do is combine the elite security checkpoints and the PreCheck checkpoints. Limit PreCheck to all elite members (any elite tier). Work with airlines to negotiate bulk enrollment, discounts, or free enrollment as part of an elite benefit. Some airlines already do this with their top tiers, but if it were less expensive, maybe the volume of including lower tiers would make up the difference. The very fact these individuals have elite status suggests they are the ones most likely to learn the system and benefit from it as well as least likely to be a risk (the government will have more data on their past travel).
Conversely, maybe those without elite status shouldn’t be able to use it at all — registration just won’t be made available. It sounds harsh, but I’m not sure that they’d use it or value it, and it may be a good marketing point to those frequent travelers who worry about being slowed down.
In my ideal world, everyone would get PreCheck. That would be a reversion to pre-9/11 security, which as far as I can tell hasn’t helped prevent any more disasters. But a dual system doesn’t work. It confuses the ones who aren’t used to PreCheck and it frustrates the ones who were expecting a smoother experience.
Extreme? Maybe. But I’m tired of waiting in line for “expedited security.”