Airport ‘Happy Lane’ Not So Happy as PreCheck Lags Forecasts

TSA Fail: Airports Weigh Privatized Screening
  • Program designed to streamline checkpoints short of applicants
  • Poor marketing, cumbersome application blamed for enrollment

As the U.S. expanded a program to streamline airport screening for passengers willing to undergo background checks several years ago, the then-chief of the Transportation Security Administration dubbed it the “happy lane.”

For the small portion of travelers now in the program that provides access to short lines, it may fit John Pistole’s description. But for passengers who don’t participate, it has contributed to security screening delays and growing tensions at airports because far fewer people signed up than the agency projected.

Enrollment in the program known as PreCheck, and other similar plans, is less than half of the government’s goal of 25 million. Travel and security specialists blame inadequate marketing, the sometimes cumbersome application process and the mixed messages sent when many non-PreCheck passengers were allowed into the faster lines for several years.

“They just haven’t sold PreCheck. They’ve got to sell it as a benefit,” said Charles Leocha, a travel advocate who is supported by airlines and other related businesses.

Shoes On

Passengers in PreCheck -- who are allowed to get through security without taking off shoes and unpacking laptops after paying $85 and undergoing a background screening -- say it cuts time off their travel.

“I can spend more time at the office instead of spending time waiting in security lines," said Wayne Broadfield, 38, a Washington-based architect. He said he applied for PreCheck because he usually travels alone for his job, and it works well. "I wouldn’t fly without it.”

Hence the "happy lane" comment by Pistole at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado in 2013, when he expanded the program.

For more on efforts to cut down on airport waits, click here.

The idea was the agency would get a far more detailed look at the backgrounds of large numbers of travelers, allowing it to focus on a smaller number of people and improve efficiency, Pistole said Wednesday in an interview.

Pistole said the goal should still be processing about half of U.S. flyers through an expedited screening program like PreCheck, because most travelers are low-risk and the agency reduced the number of screeners because it was emphasizing security measures outside the screening lines.

“You would improve wait times dramatically,” said Pistole, who left the transportation security agency at the end of 2014. “It has the potential to be a game-changer, as I and others envisioned it five years ago, but people have to have confidence in the system that a true bad guy will be detected, hopefully, before he gets to the airport.”

Lagging Enrollment

But even Pistole said he’s surprised at the delays in getting the program to capacity. The lagging enrollment has been one of the reasons that thousands of passengers have missed flights this spring in long airport lines.

If PreCheck were operating at projections, it would ease the burden on the TSA, which is facing an increase in the number of travelers this summer. The agency has lost more than 5,000 screeners since 2011 as its budget was trimmed and it had to conduct more time-consuming security measures after Homeland Security Department Inspector General reports criticized the agency for missing hidden weapons and explosives.

But another factor in the long lines is PreCheck and how it was altered in the past year, according to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger and Pistole.

In its initial years, the TSA funneled regular passengers into PreCheck lanes -- where fliers don’t need to take off shoes, unpack laptops or remove liquids -- to ensure that there were enough people to justify the newly created lines.

Unacceptable Risk

That process was an “unacceptable risk to aviation security” because additional steps the agency was supposed to take to ensure people didn’t take advantage of the program often weren’t followed, Inspector General John Roth said in a report last year.

Neffenger, who took over TSA in July, halted that portion of the program, forcing passengers back into regular screening lanes, adding another burden that has swelled lines.

“One of my fundamental priorities is to dramatically expand the PreCheck population and to dramatically expand the capability to enroll people in PreCheck,” he told the House Homeland Security Committee at a hearing on Wednesday.

Neffenger’s shift in the agency’s priorities last year after Pistole left took some of the wind out of PreCheck, said Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Trusted Traveler

“John Pistole was really the one who finally brought a trusted traveler program that TSA liked,” Price said. “After Pistole left, they had the big blowup over the screening failures, and Neffenger walked right into that buzzsaw.”

Responding to the screening failures became the focal point at Neffenger’s confirmation hearings, and the TSA’s priorities changed, according to Price. One of the first things they did was to slow down the lines and stopped worrying so much about PreCheck.

“Problem is, all of their future passenger projections were based on having 25 million people in PreCheck by this year,” he said. The program includes 2.8 million people. “When you make that much of a mis-estimation, you’re going to see what you see today.”

PreCheck is enrolling about 16,000 new members a day, up from 8,000 in April, TSA spokesman Michael England said. TSA grants PreCheck privileges to about 6.7 million other so-called trusted traveler programs, such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry.

Frequent Fliers

In the early days of the program under Pistole, passengers who qualified for PreCheck were drawn from airline frequent flier lists. In 2013, he expanded it to people who applied, paid the fee and were checked against lists of criminals and suspected terrorists.

As the fledgling program got off the ground, keeping PreCheck lines full by adding people from frequent flier programs and from regular lines was necessary. But it had the unintended consequence of leading people to think they didn’t need to actually apply, according to Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Homeland Security Department who founded Monument Policy Group in Washington.

“It gave a totally mixed message about what the program was. It was a huge misstep,” said Verdery, whose firm represents MorphoTrust USA, the company that processes PreCheck applications.

Now that security lines are growing, the TSA has at times had to shut its PreCheck lanes to so screeners could focus on regular passengers, derailing the benefits of the program, Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president for customer experience at American Airlines said at a congressional hearing Thursday.

“It’s a service TSA is selling and people are paying for, and they are incredibly frustrated when those lines are closed,” she said.

Offering Perks

Syracuse, New York, Hancock International Airport has boosted its PreCheck membership to about 40 percent of travelers because it has an enrollment center and offers perks such as free parking for members, Christina Callahan, the airport’s executive director, told the hearing.

Syracuse is in the district of Representative John Katko, the Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s transportation security subcommittee.

One way to quickly expand the program would be to automatically add U.S. government workers who have already cleared a background check, according to Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at the trade group Airlines for America. The TSA already automatically includes U.S. judges and members of Congress.

Pistole said PreCheck enrollment could be expanded by adding locations where people can apply. Applicants must apply in person to verify their identity at one of about 300 locations. The government is proposing using outside contractors, who would receive a portion of the PreCheck fee, to expand the number of locations and improve marketing.

Privacy and civil liberties questions have delayed that effort for years, Pistole said. The agency had to write rules and regulations and work out liability issues, he said.

“I had hoped it would be done before I left and they’re still working on it,” Pistole said.

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