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TSA to expand PreCheck program to speed up airport security lines

The program lets travelers who obtain Transportation Security Administration clearance avoid what have become the most annoying steps of post-9/11 screening: removing shoes, belt and coats.

February 09, 2012|By Hugo Martín and Ian Duncan, Los Angeles Times
  • The expansion of TSAs PreCheck program is part of the agency's efforts to spend less time scrutinizing low-risk, frequent passengers to free up resources to stop travelers who pose a serious threat to airline safety. Above, a traveler gets a pat-down security screening last year at Los Angeles International Airport.
The expansion of TSAs PreCheck program is part of the agency's efforts… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — A program that lets preapproved air travelers zip through faster security lines will be expanded this year to 35 of the nation's largest airports, Transportation Security Administration officials announced Wednesday.

The pilot program, dubbed PreCheck, lets travelers who get TSA clearance avoid what have become the most annoying steps of post-9/11 screening: removing shoes, belt and coats.

PreCheck has been tested for several months with frequent travelers who fly with several major airlines at seven airports, including Los Angeles International. Nationwide, it has already been used to screen 336,000 passengers. Among the airports being added are the three used by the hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

To get approved to participate, passengers must be U.S. citizens and must share background information such as gender and date of birth with the TSA.

Passengers interviewed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where the program will be offered this year, had mixed feelings. Some travelers said they would have no trouble giving the government background information if it meant saving time at the airport terminal.

"If it's more efficient, and the general public can't obtain the information, I couldn't care what the screener knows," said Andrew Goldberg, a patent and trademark worker who was flying to Greenville, S.C.

But others worried that the program may make air travel more vulnerable to terrorists.

"A lot of people will get away with a lot of stuff because they'll be considered low-risk," said Stacey Morris, who was flying to Miami for a vacation. "It's not safe. It's not a good idea. They should scratch it out of their heads."

Morris also complained that the program is designed for frequent travelers, not for occasional fliers like her.

"Everybody should be treated equally," she said. "I put my money in just like they did; they should wait in line."

The expansion is part of the TSA's efforts to spend less time scrutinizing low-risk, frequent passengers to free up resources to stop travelers who pose a serious threat to airline safety. TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said the PreCheck program and a similar effort for international travelers, called Global Entry, will help make the TSA screening process more efficient.

"We are pleased to expand this important effort, in collaboration with our airline and airport partners, as we move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more intelligence-driven, risk-based transportation security system," he said.

Travelers who already submit background information to participate in a frequent flier program with American and Delta airlines may be invited by those airlines to participate in PreCheck. If passengers agree, the airlines would share the background data with the TSA.

United, US Airways and Alaska airlines are expected to join the program this year.

Another way for travelers to participate in PreCheck is to go to the website http://www.globalentry.gov, provide background information, pay $100 and receive an identification number that is submitted online when booking an airline ticket. The application also qualifies passengers for Global Entry, an expedited program for entering the country.

If travelers are cleared to participate in PreCheck, an embedded code in the passenger's boarding pass will tell TSA officials at participating airports that the passenger qualifies to use a special expedited security line.

At the faster security lines, passengers don't have to remove their shoes, coats or belts and can keep laptop computers and liquids in their carry-on luggage.

Still, TSA officials say they will always add random and unpredictable security checks throughout the airport and nobody will be guaranteed a fast screening.

The PreCheck expansion was supported by passenger groups and corporate travel managers, who say that long lines and embarrassing screening measures have discouraged many from traveling more.

"As an association, faster, more efficient and smarter travel processes that ensure the traveling public's safety are our top priority and essential for business travelers," said Michael W. McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Assn., a trade group for travel managers.

But some passengers wondered what criteria the TSA will use to approve passengers to participate in PreCheck.

"It begs the question of how they do the profiling," said Kerry Perl, a salesman from Florida who said he travels three weeks out of the month. "Who's a good person? Who's a bad person? Am I high-risk because I'm of Muslim descent? I'm a high-risk because I'm wearing a turban?"

TSA officials say race is not a considered in the applications for PreCheck, but they declined to discuss the criteria. A list of participating airports can be found at http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/escreening.shtm.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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