Expedited security screening at the airport is pointless now that everyone is using it

US airports are still a zoo.
US airports are still a zoo.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Weaving through the tunnels and baggage claim of O’Hare’s Terminal 1 last week, I climbed the stairs to the ticketing level of the airport and stopped dead in my tracks before a line of sullen passengers.

“Is this the PreCheck line?” I asked, wildly looking around the terminal.

The other passengers grunted in assent and looked back down at their mobile phones.

A woman in a commanding yellow dress came skidding up behind me like a stock car driver pulling into a pit stop, latte in hand and with a weathered rollaboard in tow.

“Where’s PreCheck?” she scowled at us.

This isn’t an uncommon scene at airports across the country, as road-weary passengers race to sign up for the program that can help speed them through airport security. Membership allows passengers access to faster security lines where they need not remove shoes, jackets or belts and where laptops can remain in carryon bags.

Introduced in the fall of 2011, the program was initially released to only the most frequent of flyers and those enrolled in advanced screening programs such as Global Entry and NEXUS. As the program gained traction, a wider spectrum of passengers was given access.

That volume now is apparent in lines across the country, many of which have swollen with passengers eager to shave a few minutes off their transit. In many cases, the lines and the subsequent wait times are far longer than alternative means to pass through security.

“I love it,” John DiScala, frequent traveler and founder of johnnyjet.com, tells me. “But the secret is out and lines are getting longer than regular security.”

Indeed, the PreCheck program has grown dramatically since its inception. David Castelveter, the Director of External Communications for the TSA points out that September’s enrollment was near 15 million passengers, and only one month later there are currently over 17 million subscribers. That recent uptick is due in part to the agency opening up applications to a broad range of travelers this fall and also to word-of-mouth endorsements from vetted passengers.

To manage the growth, the agency is taking measures to expand the volume of checkpoints geared for Preheck across the country. By year’s end, 100 airports will have updated lines, up from the 40 in place earlier this year, and current airports will get expanded service. In Washington DC’s Dulles, where last Thursday’s line was looped serpentine around the terminal, the agency plans on opening up two more lines to help manage the load.

According to Mr. Castelveter, there will be 350 airports with PreCheck service, many of them with multiple lines, by early 2014.

That growth may not come soon enough for many of the passengers frustrated with PreCheck, as more encounter long lines at the airport and are forced to adjust their travel plans.

“These days, I have to play a guessing game of which line to take” Nick Farina, a technology entrepreneur and frequent flyer tells me. “What used to be a clean, crisp approach to security is now a jumbled mess.”

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