Luxury Travel

Is the TSA’s $85 PreCheck Program Too Pricey?

The spring travel nightmare has caused a surge of applications, but a lower fee might really open the floodgates.

Travel Headaches: Can We Speed Up Airport Security Lines?

The “divesting” of shoes, laptops, and toothpaste tubes, to use the U.S. Transportation Security Agency’s term, has been one factor in the airport security lines entangling U.S. travelers this spring.

The agency’s PreCheck program is designed to fix that problem and move the lines—but only 2.77 million people have enrolled to date, far below projections. The TSA wants to have 25 million people signed up by 2019 for federal “trusted traveler” programs such as PreCheck, for domestic travel, and Global Entry, the program for international travelers run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Efforts to push TSA PreCheck were galvanized this spring by weeks of frustratingly long security lines which quickly spiked enrollments. Daily applications jumped to 16,000 in May, double the rate of the prior month. “I won’t say we were caught off guard with this, but I will tell you the surge happened much more rapidly than anyone could anticipate,” said Charlie Carroll, a senior vice president at MorphoTrust USA, which runs the program. The Billerica, Mass.-based company is owned by Safran SA, the French aerospace conglomerate.

But
 according to the U.S. Travel Association, a lower fee and simpler application process would spur 7 million more people to enroll in the PreCheck program. In a statement Thursday, the group based its claim on a survey of 1,000 domestic travelers conducted March 7-10. Of the 1,000 people, 20.5 percent said they would likely enroll in PreCheck. Among the rest, half cited the $85 fee as the reason they would probably not enroll. 

The TSA said PreCheck is a boon for both aviation security and more expedient airport screening. Travelers are pre-vetted via a criminal background check and retain their belts, shoes, jackets, and laptop computers as they transit airport security lanes—keeping things moving. The queue times in airport PreCheck lanes are generally less than half that of the regular lanes.

Yet the current price—$85 for five years in the program—is too expensive for many people, according to several groups that consider the sum a deterrent for many who don’t travel frequently.

The U.S. Travel Association, which estimates that security clogs will cause $4.3 billion in lost travel this summer as people choose to avoid flying, said a lower PreCheck fee would help boost enrollment and mitigate some security bottlenecks at major airports. The nonprofit group represents 1,250 organizations, across 20 travel areas, mostly in destinations and travel service businesses.

“We have this sneaking suspicion that there is some price sensitivity,” said Jonathan Grella, an executive vice president with the travel group. “We’re not sacrificing security for efficiency ... we can achieve both aims,” he said. “We believe that PreCheck, and trusted traveler programs in general, hold the key to mitigating this challenge that we have.”

Some credit cards with annual fees will reimburse the cost of PreCheck or the $100 Global entry program. Several airlines also offer the perk for free to members at the top tiers of their frequent flier programs.

To join PreCheck, you must appear at one of the 370 enrollment locations staffed by about 2,000 MorphoTrust employees, either with an appointment or by walking in. The wait has increased to a few weeks to get a date at many locations, but those people receive preference over walk ins. (An application completed June 1 yielded a June 15 appointment at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.) The company then takes fingerprints for a criminal background check and verifies your identification, a process the TSA said takes five minutes or less.

Carroll, the MorphoTrust executive, disagrees that the fee paid for PreCheck is a deterrent. “I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the $85,” he said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’d pay more.’”

Of the $85 fee, $38 goes to the TSA, and the FBI gets $12.50 for handling the criminal check. The fee covers the federal agencies’ costs with no profit, TSA spokesman Michael England said.

MorphoTrust collects $34.50 on each applicant. The company declined to say how much profit it realizes from the program, which has grown more expensive in recent weeks as the company rushed out more staff and equipment to meet demand. The TSA is expecting proposals this summer for the next contract to administer the program and may select as many as three vendors. MorphoTrust will seek to win a new contract in the coming round, Carroll said, and hopes to address any short-term cost increases as enrollment volumes increase over time.

It’s unclear whether the price will change under the next TSA PreCheck contract, but Grella said the association’s meetings with TSA officials indicate a lower fee is being considered. “They seem to buy into the concept that a price adjustment would make a big difference, so that's good news,” he said.

Lower price or not, the government wants a private partner to administer PreCheck, which means profit will remain part of the TSA’s effort to increase “trusted travelers.” But the number of potential travelers who may participate is unclear, according to MorphoTrust officials and others.

“I’ve heard 60 million, I’ve heard 50 million,” Carroll said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who really agrees on what the size of the market is.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE