The Transportation Security Administration this month plans to significantly reduce the number of frequent fliers who go through faster airport security lines for free even though they haven't signed up for vetting programs like PreCheck, a TSA official said.
The change is not because of any new security threat but is part of a "natural progression" to limit expedited screening to only fliers who have either gone through background checks or have been checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, said TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy. Some frequent fliers who aren't signed up for PreCheck still will be selected for these faster lines — though less frequently, McCarthy said. Fliers are selected after the TSA does a risk calculation based on their itinerary and other information.
"It's been part of the plan all along," said McCarthy, referring to the reduction. He did not know how many fliers could be affected. He said TSA does not expect the change will affect lines, because the agency has been training and using more canine teams, which allow more people to go into faster lines.
PreCheck and other programs like Global Entry allow fliers to skip the hassle of taking off shoes, belts and light jackets and removing laptops from suitcases while going through sped-up security lines. Applying for PreCheck, which involves fingerprinting and an FBI background check, requires an $85 fee.
The TSA has a goal of signing up 25 million fliers for expedited screening by 2019. There are more than 12 million participants in expedited screening programs, including more than 4 million in PreCheck, a number that has doubled since January 2016, McCarthy said. Long lines and publicity by the TSA have encouraged more people to sign up.
The TSA last year underestimated the number of fliers who would sign up, which along with higher passenger numbers, a staff shortage and tougher security measures contributed to two-hour airport lines last spring in Chicago. The agency addressed the line problem by beefing up staff and canine teams at major airports.
A University of Illinois study in December proposed that if the TSA paid for PreCheck applications for high-volume fliers rather than make travelers pay, it would save the agency $34 million a year, create shorter lines and enhance security at the nation's airports. The lead author of the study, U. of I. computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson, said the TSA had not yet responded to the suggestion.
However, Jacobson agreed with the TSA's move to reduce the number of frequent fliers who are not signed up for PreCheck but are allowed through the PreCheck line. He cited the extensive vetting required by PreCheck.
"It's actually quite prudent," said Jacobson, who has been studying aviation security since the mid-1990s. "The fact that they're stopping this is actually a good thing."
He recalled that TSA once used a "managed inclusion" program that allowed workers to randomly select people out of lines, screen them for explosives and allow them to use the shorter PreCheck line. He said that program, discontinued in 2015, created "vulnerabilities."
Jacobson's study figured that it was four times more efficient to screen people through PreCheck than through ordinary, enhanced screening with its shoe removals and occasional body pat-downs.
Fliers also like it better — a survey by Airlines for America, a trade group, found that those enrolled in expedited screening report better travel experiences than those who are not.
DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman said he is one of the millions of people who regularly get the benefits of PreCheck without having to pay for them.
"Changing the policy will certainly give me an incentive to join," Schwieterman said. "In some ways, TSA has been savvy, giving fliers a taste of PreCheck for free. Many will feel compelled to join to keep the benefits coming."
Schwieterman cautioned that the TSA has to be careful as it tries new strategies, considering the flying public will not want a repeat of the problems that caused long security lines last spring.
Some groups who have undergone federal background checks, including members of the armed services, get PreCheck at no cost. Airlines provide incentives to get PreCheck, such as application vouchers for frequent fliers and airline credit cards that waive the enrollment fee.
The TSA announced late last month that 11 new airlines had joined the PreCheck program, including Spirit Airlines, which has a large presence at O'Hare International Airport. The largest airlines, such as United, American and Southwest, were already participating in the program.
Passengers with participating airlines can have their PreCheck numbers on their reservation pages, which allows access to the PreCheck line at the airport, McCarthy said. A total of 30 airlines participate in PreCheck.