A:In its first decade of existence, the Transportation Security Administration was the tiger mom of government organizations—overbearing to the point of invasiveness, and about as fun as an ankle sprain.
The TSA finally loosened up a little in October 2011, when it launched PreCheck, a program giving select frequent fliers and members of trusted traveler programs like Global Entry access to an expedited lane where they didn’t have to remove belts and shoes, and laptops and liquids could remain in carry-ons.
It was a baby step in the right direction, but, at the time, those of us who didn’t qualify for the fast lane were justifiably irked about enduring soul-crushing waits and modern indignities—like the full-body scan and subsequent pat-down—while VIPs breezed through security.
The agency responded late last year by opening up PreCheck to anyone who passes a background check and pays an $85 annual fee. The service—which continues to expand and is currently available in more than 100 airports—has been a resounding success, or so says the TSA.
The organization reported significantly shorter wait times during the 2013 holiday travel season, thanks to PreCheck and its domino effect of speeding up regular security lines. But there are still kinks to work out.
Around the time PreCheck became available to the public, the TSA began pulling non-PreCheck members out of regular lines at random and placing them into the fast lane, presumably to get the word out about its new service and to keep all lanes moving as quickly as possible.
“The TSA is using real-time threat assessments at select airports to direct additional passengers to the PreCheck lane, where certain familiar routines are waived, such as removing shoes and laptops from cases,” says the agency’s press secretary, Ross Feinstein. “The TSA uses this during specific time periods and at certain locations throughout the week, depending on relative queue lengths in the PreCheck lane versus the standard-screening checkpoint lanes.”
This random-inclusion program continues today (I was a recent beneficiary, and had a great experience), which begs the question: Why would I pay $85 a year and let the TSA rummage through my past if there’s a chance I’ll be pulled into the fast lane, unvetted, when regular lines are slow?
To complicate matters, a travel writer I know once went back to the normal line because the PreCheck one was too slow, bogged down by confused fliers who unnecessarily removed their belts and laptops.
Of course, my positive experience and his negative one are merely anecdotes. But that’s all we’ve got until the TSA refines this service and releases hard numbers about its overall success or failure. In the meantime, I’m going to hang on to my $85 and hope to get a few more free strolls through the sane lane.