Why hasn't TSA PreCheck reduced airport wait times?

Bob Mason arrived nearly two hours before a business trip out of Ontario Airport a couple of years ago only to face the headache that all travelers dread: a security screening line that seemed to go on forever.

“I barely made my flight,” said Mason, a healthcare consultant from Redlands. “That was sort of a wake-up call.”

The delay prompted Mason to join about 2.7 million other travelers who have signed up for TSA PreCheck, the Transportation Security Administration program that lets fliers use an expedited screening line if they first submit to a government background check.

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The idea behind TSA PreCheck is to create a faster checkpoint for low-risk fliers so that TSA can focus its limited resources on the majority of travelers in regular security lines.

But the program has fallen far short of its goal of enrolling 25 million travelers, and TSA critics blame the program’s shortcomings, in part, for the long security lines that are bogging down airport checkpoints as the nation prepares for the peak summer travel season.

Instead of speeding the screening process for everyone, critics say the TSA PreCheck is worsening the delays by taking up resources for a small group of travelers.

"Wait times are not soaring simply because security is much tighter," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, during a hearing Wednesday. "It's because the TSA bureaucracy has gotten weaker. The agency has struggled to keep up with the high demand and has been unable to put the right people in the right place at the right time."

The reason more travelers haven't signed up for TSA PreCheck, critics contend, is that the program hasn’t been sufficiently promoted, signing up is a hassle and the cost for membership is too high. In addition, no one is guaranteed to zip through the special screening line because TSA officers always reserve the right to randomly pull any TSA PreCheck member out of line to undergo extra screening.

“Not enough people have signed up to make a dent,” said Rob Britton, an adjunct professor of marketing and planning at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “It’s a marketing problem on the part of the TSA and on the part of the government.”

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Assn., a trade group for the nation's travel industry, is one of the loudest critics of the program, saying he worries that the long lines will discourage travelers from flying this summer.

"Travel is more than us getting somewhere," he said. "It's how business is done." 

TSA declined to make a representative available for an interview on TSA PreCheck, but a representative for MorphoTrust USA, the private firm hired by the agency to enroll travelers in the program, said efforts are underway to boost membership.

When the program launched in 2013, TSA primarily relied on "word of mouth" to promote it, said Charles Carroll, senior vice president of identity services at MorphoTrust USA. More recently, the TSA has started to work with airlines and other businesses to advertise the program, he said.

"The TSA has put a lot more emphasis on marketing," Carroll said.

The TSA said it spent $1.5 million to promote the program last year and plans to spend an additional $1.9 million on promotion this year. By comparison, the National Park Foundation is raising $350 million to promote, upgrade and protect the national parks system over the next two years.

TSA's goal was for 25% of the traveling public to go through some form of expedited physical screening by the end of 2013, and for the rate to increase to 50% by the end of 2014.

But so far only about 7.3 million people are enrolled in the TSA’s four trusted-traveler programs, including 2.7 million in TSA PreCheck. Last year, the TSA screened 694 million travelers.

Along the way, TSA PreCheck has made a few missteps.

In 2014, a former member of a domestic terrorist group got clearance to use the TSA PreCheck line at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, according to the office of the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security.

Media reports identified her as Sara Jane Olson, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was randomly picked to use TSA PreCheck even though a TSA screener recognized her and notified a supervisor.

Still, the program seems to be gaining fans among travelers.

TSA PreCheck members don’t remove their shoes, coats or belts during the screening and can leave their laptops in their bags. As a result, the average wait time for a TSA Precheck member is five minutes, compared with an average 20 minutes for regular security checkpoints, according to the TSA.

In a survey of more than 3,000 travelers, 44% said TSA PreCheck has saved them time at the airport, up from 25% in 2014. But the survey taken in April by a Minnesota-based travel company found that about 45% of travelers didn't know if the program saves them time compared with using the regular screening lines.

Several airlines have complained that recent security screening delays have forced hundreds of travelers to miss flights.

The union representing TSA officers says the problem is a shortage of airport screeners.

The TSA now employs about 42,000 screeners, down from 47,000 in 2013, according to the union. Meanwhile, the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports is expected to reach 740 million this year, up from 643 million in 2013.

In congressional testimony May 12, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger suggested the number of screeners nationwide was cut by his predecessors in anticipation of more travelers signing up for TSA PreCheck and other trusted-traveler programs.

Congress has already shifted $34 million to let the TSA hire 768 new officers and cover overtime pay for existing screeners. But the union representing TSA workers has demanded that Congress fund the hiring of 6,000 more full-time screeners.

To sign up for TSA PreCheck, travelers must make an appointment at one of 370 enrollment centers across the country, including locations at Los Angeles International Airport. In the Los Angeles area, it now take two weeks or longer to get an appointment date. 

Once the appointment is completed, the background check, including fingerprints, takes two weeks or longer to be completed.

The fee is $85 for a five-year enrollment. Several credit card companies will reimburse card holders for the fee, and Alaska Airlines lets travelers use their loyalty reward points to pay it.

As for the criticism that signing up is time consuming, Carroll said MorphoTrust has added extra staff, more enrollment centers and extended the hours of the enrollment centers to include Saturdays. 

Britton, the adjunct professor and former airline marketing manager, said he has signed up for TSA PreCheck because he believes the program will reduce airport screening lines — if more travelers sign up.

"I travel three or four times a month," he said. "Even if I were to only go once a month, it would be worth every penny. It’s just a great program.”

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