Everything You Need to Know About the New TSA PreCheck Program

Posted on
May 16, 2012

Who knew keeping your shoes on would be such a luxury?

I am not a gambler. Should there be any doubts of this, note that I was in Vegas for two whole days and the greatest risk I took in a casino was ordering a savory crepe (don’t do it. Cheese is no substitute for Nutella, and anyone who says otherwise is likely trying to sell you something. Probably cheese).

But the TSA has turned me into someone who takes chances, who rolls the dice again and again, because if I win, I get a bit of humanity back. How? Via the TSA’s new PreCheck program.

The TSA’s website doesn’t offer a ton of information about how their precheck system works. But here’s what I learned:

  • You must sign up for it beforehand. Rand and I did so via an online form through Alaska Airlines which had virtually no information on it. It wasn’t an agreement by any means. It just asked for our name and frequent flier numbers.
  • We were eligible via Alaska Airlines because we both have status on the airline.
  • In signing up for the program, we agreed to let Alaska share our flight itineraries with the TSA, along with our frequent flier numbers. (This surprised me, as I assumed the TSA already had access to this information).
  • The only airlines currently participating in the program are Alaska, American, and Delta (with plans to add more this summer). They usually only offer the ability to sign up for the program to their frequent fliers. Active service members are also eligible for the program. Or you can apply for the Global Online Enrollment System; if accepted, you will automatically be eligible for the PreCheck.
  • In addition to flying a participating airline, you also need to be traveling through a participating gate at a participating airport (Yeah. Lots of caveats there).
  • Even if you meet all the requirements and are traveling on a participating airline at a participating airport through a participating gate, you still might not be selected. From the TSA’s website: “… no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening in order to retain a certain element of randomness to prevent terrorists from gaming the system.”
  • If you are selected for PreCheck, you won’t know until you get to the gate. The airline will encode the message on the barcode of your ticket. If you are traveling with someone who has not been selected for pre-check, they don’t get to ride your coattails.

Based on all of this, it seems highly improbable that anyone would be selected. But if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught me anything (besides that I should always take a towel) it’s this: highly improbable is not the same as impossible.

And so, on our flight down to Vegas, flying Alaska and departing through SeaTac, the improbable happened, and we were selected. We were sent into a separate, shorter lane (the one folks get to use when they are frequent fliers or first class). Our IDs were checked against our tickets by an agent, and then we headed through security.

There was no line ahead of us – just a metal detector. And that’s when the TSA, for the first time in years, treated us like normal people. Here’s how:

  • We didn’t have to remove our shoes (and thank goodness, as I wasn’t wearing socks)
  • We could keep our laptops and TSA-compliant liquids in our bags.
  • Sweaters and like jackets did not need to be removed.
  • We could keep small amounts of metal – such as that found on jewelry or belts – on.

So we tossed our bags on the conveyor belt, walked through the metal detector, stared at each other incredulously on the other side, and that was it. It took roughly 45 seconds, if that. It was like we’d died and gone to 1998. Traveling was suddenly easy. Security was a breeze. I no longer hated the TSA!

We’d hit the jackpot.

We managed to luck out again on our way back from Vegas. And this time, I was gambling big-time. I was wearing a dress.

Why is this significant? Because I am often selected for the full-body scanners. And every time I am, I opt out, and am subject to a pat-down. I was willfully walking into a situation where I might have to be patted down while in a dress. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I wasn’t going to change.

I mean it’s a really pretty dress. It’s a white dress covered in green leaves, packs beautifully, and cost me $6 at the Goodwill. And according to that dress, I’m two sizes smaller than I actually am. Besides, I’ll admit: I was kind of curious. How were they going to pat me down on my legs? The procedure is that they run their hand up your leg until they meet “resistance” so … were they going to reach up the skirt of my dress?

That sounded mortifying, but better I have it done voluntarily so I can tell others about it, then have someone else get caught off guard. Nope. The dress was staying on. I’d suddenly become a gambler.

But it didn’t matter: we were selected for PreCheck, and breezed through security in Vegas.

Of course, it doesn’t always work so smoothly.

At Newark airport this past Sunday, we were again sent through a quicker line for frequent fliers/first class passengers. I was hopeful that I could keep my shoes on (and I wasn’t wearing a dress), but soon realized we were headed towards the regular queue. And nearly everyone was being sent through the full-body scanner. The line was quickly stacking up as the agents refused to send anyone through the metal detector.

Rand was selected for the full-body scan ahead of me. He opted out, and the agent began telling him – in impatient tones – how it wasn’t dangerous, etc. Rand held up his hand gently in objection and said, “I’m opting out. Thank you.”

We have years of experience: Rand gets a pat-down in London, February 2010.

The woman ahead of me was sent through the metal detector, but I was selected for the full-body scan. I opted-out, was submitted to the same speech, and then sent through the metal detector before the pat-down.

It’s ridiculously, really. I was no different that the woman in front of me, but because I’d demanded to be treated like her (to go through only the metal detector), I was subjected to more screening. The TSA punishes those who dissent. It’s creepy to think about.

It’s also disturbing to consider that, with the new TSA PreCheck, those who are eligible are usually the upper class. Think about it: if you travel a lot, you likely have the finances to do so. Most of the folks who are frequent fliers are also first class passengers (one of the perks of flying a lot) – so a strange dichotomy is created between the haves and have-nots. The three-child family who takes one trip every few years is sent struggling through security while the businessman who travels all the time breezes through.

If you fly first class, you are treated better, even by security.

Don't fret: if we ever fly first class, it's usually by mistake.

We ended up making it through Newark fine. We are often patted down, so it was no big deal. But I’d seen what it had been like to be treated humanely by the TSA, and I was having trouble going back to how things were.

Is the TSA PreCheck worth it? Absolutely. There’s nothing to lose, really. If you don’t get selected, you’re treated like everyone else – a shoeless nobody getting their nether regions prodded by a stranger in latex gloves.

But if you do get picked for PreCheck? You get treated like a person by the TSA. Which, really, is like hitting the jackpot.

Leave a Comment

  • Ruth

    The TSA agents who try to talk you out of a pat-down are a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Justin usually makes a point of reporting it to their supervisor after the pat-down.

    I would like to see a picture of this dress!

  • And so it’s the poor who will be terrorists, right.

    Maybe this is a good sign that the entire TSA BS will back off soon. Going to look into the pre-check.
    Thanks for the info.

  • On the subject of business travelers getting better treatment, I was delighted to see a business-traveling d-bag (not to impugn all business travelers, but this was the dude who inserted himself in line between me and my kid) get pulled out for “enhanced screening” on our recent flight back from Tokyo. I’m a small man in a lot of ways. A small, small, petty, small man.

  • I have no comment re: TSA. But I do have a very important comment re: sweet vs. savory crepes, a subject on which my husband and I disagree vehemently (I am pro-sweet). I cut-and-pasted the first paragraph of your blog and emailed it to him. To which he replied, “Savory breakfast > Sweet Breakfast so Savory Crepe > Sweet Crepe.” To which I then replied, “A crepe is not a breakfast. It’s a dessert!”
    His logic is flawed. I still love him though.

  • Leah

    “In signing up for the program, we agreed to let Alaska share our flight itineraries with the TSA, along with our frequent flier numbers. (This surprised me, as I assumed the TSA already had access to this information)” Who says they didn’t already have access? This just means that you’re now allowing them to have the access…

  • I suspect the “it’s a harmless process” statement upon opting out may be a standard policy, as I’ve run across it boarding twice in San Diego and once in Anchorage.

    The first time, I was treated to “special treatment”, likely because of my “that’s what they’d like you to believe!” response. [Le sigh]

  • Bo

    Let the class warfare commence!

    If the TSA (read: Too Stupid for Arby’s) can get some “influential” people on their side, the gropings and theft of both pride and property can continue forever.

    Congratulations, you are a minor Quisling, and ,part of the problem, not the solution.

  • I didn’t realise the ‘standard’ process was so bad over there! Am now seriously reconsidering my thoughts on internal flights when we travel to the US.

  • I opted for the GOES system and find it saves me hours of time. There’s a long form, a 3-4 week while they review all the info I also assume they already have about me, and then a 10 minutes interview with some charming folks over at Boeing Field, which is a throwback to airports of the 1950’s. I love that place!

    Now I breeze through the Canadian borders with my car, through the pre-check system anywhere that offers it in the US, and even at airports into and out of Canada using the iris system. Sadly, the iris system is country-by-country. So I couldn’t, for example, use my iris scan system to clear the HUGELY long lines at Heathrow the other day. Maybe someday soon…

  • Jerry

    Getting to second base is a “pat down”? Shouldn’t groping be called out for being “feel-ups”?

  • ” no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening in order to retain a certain element of randomness to prevent terrorists from gaming the system.” How refreshing is it, that the TSA has become so candid of late?

  • This is a great post which only serves to fuel my TSA annoyance. If sharing flight info and frequent flyer numbers means I don’t have to take off my shoes or remember to dig my liquids out of my bag, by all means airlines/ federal gub’ment, SHARE THE INFORMATION AND LET ME KEEP MY STUPID SHOES ON.

    I mean really. I feel like I’m more at risk to pick up Athlete’s Foot (gross, sorry) than get on a plane with a terrist (said in a George W. accent).

  • The TSA is the TSA. I’ve gotten used to it. People don’t like it, security lines suck, but it’s all for our safety right? I may apply for the pre-check and roll the dice as well. We will see if it works for me. As much as I will be traveling over the next few months, it will be worth it.

    With that said, families don’t always have it bad. Many airports do have family lanes. This is more for the benefit of everyone else in line so they don’t have to put up with your slow and whiny kids. However, it does make it a bit easier and less stressful for families too.

    • “it’s all for our safety right?”

      That’s just it. It’s not at all for our safety. It’s for the illusion of safety. And that’s a tired argument so I’ll stop there.

      • The statement was tongue in cheek/sarcasm. It’s all about the perception of safety.

  • Is it possible that the airline just makes a lottery and picks random people for Pre-check ?

  • Sammus

    I enjoy those boots at the top of the article, where can I find some?

  • budhappy

    why do I have to give my information to the TSA when I am not even flying through US airspace??

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