Just in time for the summer travel boom, the Transportation Security Administration has announced that it’s testing a new set of requirements to make air travel yet more annoying and burdensome. Ready to take out your tablet, e-reader, food and books in addition to removing your shoes, jacket, belt, liquids and laptop? Ready for what that’s going to do to the lines at security?
Most of us are not, in fact, ready.
Here’s how you can actually get ready: Sign up for TSA PreCheck or another one of the trusted traveler programs that allow you to skip all those irritating requirements (and the long lines they cause). Once you have a known traveler number, you can go through an expedited lane almost every time you fly. No removing your shoes, no pulling out your liquids, and no checking the time every few minutes while you eye the massive, unmoving line ahead of you and feel the panic rising in your chest.
You’ve probably noted and envied the short, fast-moving PreCheck lines at the airport, and perhaps you’ve even made a mental note to look into the program, but have you actually made the effort to sign up? The vast majority of Americans have not.
Yes, PreCheck is yet another way for Big Brother to keep its ubiquitous eyes on you. Yes, the TSA is largely in the business of security theater—providing the appearance that something is being done to keep you safe, with a lot of show and very little meaningful impact. Yes, the program is imperfect—some airlines don’t participate, sometimes the lane is closed, sometimes some ignorant rube slows you down by trying to take off their shoes even though they don’t need to.
And yes, PreCheck is yet another way to separate you, American Traveler, from what’s left in your wallet.
But Big Brother is watching anyway; signing up for PreCheck only costs $85 (a drop in the bucket of your air travel costs) and lasts five whole years; and the expedited lines will save you a significant amount of time and stress if you travel with any regularity.
(I don’t even know what to say about the issue of security theater, and I’m certainly not here to tell you that we’re any safer now than we were in, say, 2000, when my then-17-year-old sister flew to Boston using an airline voucher issued in my name and my high school ID. She is more than three years my senior, and the ID photo showed me with a recent buzz-cut, while her own hair then fell to her waist. What can I say? Things were very different then.)
But back to PreCheck.
“Last year, even in the worst conditions, people who were part of the TSA PreCheck program stood in line for five minutes or less,” Charlie Carroll, senior vice president of identity services at MorphoTrust USA, which operates PreCheck, told Marketplace.
That may sound overly optimistic, but it’s consistent with my own experience. In two-plus years of having Global Entry (a program that includes TSA PreCheck along with a number of other benefits for international travelers) and flying several times a month, I’ve only ever encountered one PreCheck line that took longer than a few minutes—and that was coming back from San Juan, Puerto Rico, immediately after the winter holidays.
I typically arrive at the airport shortly before my flight is scheduled to begin boarding—assuming, of course, that I am traveling within the U.S.—and I’ve never come close to missing a flight. I cannot in good conscience recommend this strategy, which is probably bad because of Reasons, but it works for me.
If you already have PreCheck or Global Entry but for some reason are still reading this, you may well be thinking, No shit, everybody already knows about this and has PreCheck. Weirdly, this is untrue. I’ve been surprised how many frequent travelers I know simply assumed that the process would be more burdensome than it is, or the price much higher, and never looked into it at all.
The most recent data from Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group, show that some 9.5 million Americans had joined either PreCheck or Global Entry by the end of 2016. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Americans flew at least once in 2016, and 83 percent said they’d be flying as much (56 percent) or more (28 percent) in 2017. That means a lot of very long lines at airports—and a lot of people who should really be signing up for trusted traveler programs.
To wit: 68 percent of travelers with Global Entry described themselves as “very satisfied” with their 2016 air travel experiences, compared to 50 percent of those with PreCheck and, uh, 36 percent of those with neither. Now, clearly there are other factors at play here, most obviously that people with Global Entry or PreCheck are surely more likely to be frequent fliers blessed with perks like early boarding and frequent upgrades and/or those wealthy enough to avoid the fetid Hellmouth known as economy class altogether. Still, there’s no question that security is one of the most stressful and unpleasant parts of flying. And you could be avoiding that. And for some reason you’re not.
Of air travelers without PreCheck or Global Entry, the Airlines for America data show, 43 percent believe the programs’ costs outweigh their benefits. These people are wrong. The application process (fill out some forms, pay the fee, and endure one brief interview — with, yes, fingerprinting — at the airport or another location) is actually pretty easy, and the expense, if you can possibly spare it, is more than worthwhile.
Another 30 percent of fliers said they didn’t know about the programs at all. These people are tragic. Please help them.
As for yourself, you can start the enrollment process for PreCheck here—or, if there’s any chance you’ll be traveling internationally, enroll in Global Entry (which costs an extra $15 over the same five-year period, and takes a bit longer to get because there are fewer enrollment centers) here. And tell your friends—you’re not, in fact, doing yourself any favors by staying quiet and hoping no one else finds out about PreCheck, since the program is designed to expand as more people use it. (Which seems to be working—I have not noticed PreCheck lines getting any longer in the time I’ve had it, while program membership has roughly doubled.)
PreCheck: It won’t do a thing to change the reality of our Orwellian dystopia, but it will make your life easier.