By Catharine Hamm
4:40 PM EST, November 27, 2013
If you're getting ready to take a flight during the holidays, be prepared for more than the usual confusion at airport screenings. The combination of infrequent fliers and the Transportation Security Administration's new initiative that allows randomly selected passengers to receive expedited screening — an initiative that will continue during the holidays — has the potential to create passenger pileup.
The TSA has moved from a one-size-fits-all security approach by allowing some passengers (75 and older) to keep on their shoes and jackets when they go through security. Kids 12 and younger can keep on their shoes. If you're on a multi-generational trip, please keep a clothing score card handy.
Then there are passengers who have PreCheck clearance, the expedited screening that allows them to keep on their jackets and shoes and keep their liquids and laptops in their carry-on. Until recently, there were two categories of PreCheck fliers: the ones who got it as an add-on to their Global Entry application and the ones who were hand-picked by the airline with which they have elite frequent-flier status. The TSA says those in the first category are the ones who most often get to use expedited screening. (Sometimes, you do not get to go in the fast lane; the randomness is part of security.)
Now add a third category to the score card: the flier who gets to use the fast lane, well, just because he or she does, sort of like being Queen for a Day. Doesn't that create security issues? The TSA reminds me that those passengers still are screened. So what's the big deal?
Answer: The complexity. If the airport you're flying from has PreCheck and you get Queen for a Day status, you get to go through security with clothing, laptops and liquids intact. Keep in mind that there are about 450 commercial airports in the U.S., but only about 100 have PreCheck.
If you're at one of the 350 other airports, you can be chosen for modified PreCheck, in which you can keep your shoes on, but you still have to take out your liquids and laptops and remove your jacket and belt.
Add another category to your score card — a mystifying category, as I found out firsthand. Flying from Burbank to Oakland last week, the hubs and I were each given a pink laminated card conferring on us modified PreCheck status. According to the TSA website, PreCheck is available only for US Airways passengers at Burbank airport. We weren't flying US Airways, so this was a surprise. I have PreCheck status because I paid my $100 for Global Entry and have been deemed a Trusted Traveler. The hubs hasn't applied and isn't an elite flier, but suddenly he was my equal, in aviation matters anyway.
We returned from Oakland 48 hours later. TSA's website says Oakland has PreCheck for Alaska, United, Hawaiian, US Airways and Delta. We were on Southwest, which has only recently joined the ranks of airlines with PreCheck, so I didn't expect expedited screening, which is good because I didn't get it.
The hubs did. He wouldn't need to remove shoes, jacket, liquids, etc.
The TSA agent motioned him to go through expedited screening, and he said, "But she didn't get it. Should I do it anyway?"
The TSA agent said, "I'd stay with her." I think that was a piece of marital advice rather than a professional assessment.
Add another category to the score card.
The larger point is this: People who have never had expedited screening are getting it, and, say readers who are frequent fliers, they're gumming up the works.
"People who have no idea what PreCheck is get boarding passes that say 'PreCheck' and when they arrive at the security checkpoint, the TSA agent directs them to the PreCheck line," Randall Gellens, a reader and frequent flier from San Diego, said in an email to me. "But since they don't know what it is, they stop to undress and take off shoes and empty bags of liquids and laptops, making the Pre-Check line just another line."
So consider this recipe for holiday pandemonium: You have a confusing process to start with, which has been made more so by the random selection of people for PreCheck. The TSA has added a giant helping of confusion by failing to inform this newly singled-out group about what they need to do. Now add an estimated 25 million holiday fliers — that's a 1.5% increase from 2012, according to the trade association Airlines for America — and consider that many of these folks don't fly often and you have a potential mess in the making.
Pack your patience, fliers. And a score card.
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